As an old-timer myself, it's time we say “you're special” to people have been working at exactly the same place for 40 years or more. This is another in my series of columns on people who “stay put” with the same employer for four decades or longer. The columns will appear on occasional Wednesdays. Call me with suggestions at 563-383-2249 or bwundram@
qctimes.com or by mail at 500 E. 3rd St., Davenport, Iowa 52801.
Michael McAleer makes life a little stronger for people with disabilities. He is like a firm handshake.
For 43 years he has been the assuring leader of Handicapped Development Center programs in Scott County. He is the father figure for a flock of about 360 people of all ages.
McAleer is in charge of hope, happiness, independence and peace of mind for a non-profit enterprise that he never expected to spend four decades serving.
HDC, as it’s regularly abbreviated, has a number of sites and programs that run the gamut from residential services to teaching employment skills and placing workers in the community. In at least one venue, workers earn small or moderate salaries doing piecework for major Quad-City industrial customers.
“You should see the look on faces when it’s payday. It means worth to someone who can put 100 widgets an hour into a sack,” McAleer says. “It’s self-importance.”
They beam — “I’m somebody” — though the earnings may be only $7.50 a week.
McAleer offers that his real name is Michael, but friends and associates call him Mike, the man who had no intention of tackling his present job. He graduated from what then was St. Ambrose College in political science and
“I needed a real job and was the second person to take over what was called the sheltered workshop on Rockingham Road,” he says.
“Things were different when I got the job in 1969; they were closeting kids with disabilities that long ago. Things have changed.”
Under Mike, the sheltered workshop program developed into the network of Handicapped Development Center programs.
“It’s spread out into places like this,” he says, standing before one of HDC’s operations, a bright workshop at 3402 Hickory Grove Road. On Tuesday, the 125 participants were working on orders for companies like Deere & Co., Alcoa and Kone.
“Mike is a man who has built a durable organization,” says Dick Kleine, who has been a longtime HDC volunteer. A brass statue of hands in front of the facility at 4201 Brady St. is dedicated to Dick’s late wife, Mary Lou, who was devoted to working with the center.
The Brady Street unit is a cheery place that fosters personal independence. The hands are a tier that tell a story of Mike. It’s interpreted H – A – N – D – S. Or, “help, achieve, new, direction, skills.”
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Mike is a big, smiling man who talks softly about making a difference. He says, “I think, with a great staff, we’re doing a good job. We’re the envy of a lot of places. ”
Greg Kautz, a member of the HDC board, believes that “good job” is understatement for the organization and Mike McAleer.
“He is one of the most committed, dedicated people I have ever known. His work is a mission; he is impassioned for the good of the Handicapped Development Center.
“On the longevity side, he is strong for having been there all these years. He is remarkable in sustaining the leadership.”
Mike comes to know the many people who have passed through HDC’s doors. He smiles at the mention of Eddy Bender, a heavy-footed Western Union delivery man who gave up telegrams to become one of HDC’s most active, cheerful participants. “Always smiling,” Mike recalls.
“Then, there was Gary Ashcraft, who had Down syndrome. He loved working here, and just before he died, he kept insisting that he return to work,” Mike says.
There is a memorial tree to Gary outside the HDC workshop.
Contact Bill Wundram at 563-383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.