Dover man named to senior hall of fame

By Tammy Keith Originally Published June 13, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 12, 2013 at 10:08 a.m.
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Eilish Palmer

Wetzel LaGrone of Dover paints each Monday morning at the Pope County Senior Activity Center in Russellville. LaGrone, 79, was inducted in May into the Arkansas Senior Hall of Fame, which honors people 65 and older who have “performed outstanding volunteer contributions or services” that have promoted or enriched the quality of life for senior Arkansans, according to the nomination form. The Hall of Fame was created in 1991 by the 78th General Assembly.

Wetzel LaGrone, 79, of Dover said he didn’t know until his name was called at the Capitol in Little Rock that he’d been accepted into the Arkansas Senior Hall of Fame.

“I was thrilled with it,” he said. “It is based on volunteering for things you’ve done to improve the life of seniors.”

Then selecting LaGrone was most likely a no-brainer.

LaGrone’s list of volunteerism is a long one, from political activism to painting.

He’s the retired chief financial officer for the Department of Human Services Division of Aging and Adult Services.

That’s the division that sponsored the Hall of Fame, but LaGrone said he wasn’t a shoe-in.

Thirteen seniors, all of whom were 65 or older, were nominated for the honor, and in May, five were accepted, he said.

“It’s volunteer work that counts,” he said.

LaGrone was elected vice chairman last week of the West Central Arkansas Area Agency on Aging Board and is on the agency’s foundation board of directors. He serves as secretary of the Pope County Senior Activity Center Advisory Council.

His reputation for knowing the ins and outs of senior centers, as well as financial matters, precedes him.

Sherry Tidwell of Danville, senior programs director for Friendship Community Care, the provider agency for the senior center, said she’s known LaGrone for about seven years.

“He’s a very kind and gentle man,” Tidwell said.

Not only that, but his experience is invaluable, she said.

“Wetzel is very, very knowledgeable about the field of aging, and he cares about the field of aging, and he is a strong advocate for seniors in our community,” she said.

Tidwell said she has often consulted LaGrone on budgeting matters and other issues regarding senior centers.

“He’s been very helpful to me. He’s very smart,” she said. “He always puts senior centers first in his mind.”

As CFO of the DHS division, LaGrone said, he traveled to area agencies on aging, as well as to senior centers all over Arkansas.

“I probably visited 15 to 20 [senior centers],” he said. “You see the different needs of the different people around the state.”

He is a five-term member of the Silver-Haired Legislature and served as committee chairman for the past three years, and he’s a member of the Silver-Haired Legislature Alumni Association.

The mock legislature of senior delegates meets every two years at the Capitol.

LaGrone said senior centers are getting less money, but the population is aging.

He said that based on the census estimate, 13,000 more people over the age of 60 — aging baby boomers, he pointed out — are in Arkansas this year compared to last year.

“The money’s down; the population’s up. … The demand is growing out there for more services, and the money’s not there,” he said.

That means more and more money has to be raised locally, LaGrone said.

For example, he said Burger Fest is held in Russellville as a fundraiser for the Pope County Senior Activity Center.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, those old folks go out there [to the senior center] and play dominoes and go home,’” he said.

“If you keep your mind busy, … it’s a proven fact that if you do that, you’re better off.

“You can go to any little town in Arkansas and find a senior center or any little cafe and find a coffee klatch — that’s socialization,” LaGrone said.

“Senior centers [have been] changing over the years,” he said. “Younger seniors are demanding more activities.”

Each Monday, he takes an oil-painting class at the Pope County Senior Activity Center.

“The room is full,” he said.

LaGrone said he just dabbles in painting.

“I didn’t start painting

until I retired [in 2003]. I went to Walmart and got a $15 beginning kit and said, ‘I’m going to try this,’” he said.

“I give [artwork] to Hospice and places in town for their fundraisers.”

LaGrone is known for telling tales, too.

“I do storytelling,” he said.

For the past couple of years, LaGrone has done storytelling once a month at an assisted-living center and a nursing home in Russellville.

“That’s the most fun part of the stuff I do,” he said.

He’s also a member of the Dover Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Russellville Kiwanis Club and the group’s representative to the Dover High School Key Club. He’s a member of the Arkansas River Valley Arts Center, where his wife, Betty, is executive director.

One day last week, LaGrone started his day by going to Hot Springs for a board meeting of the West Central Arkansas Area Agency on Aging. Then he came back to Dover and donated blood (he’s donated 7 gallons since 2003) and drove to Conway that evening to attend his great-grandson’s T-ball game.

“I’m having fun in retirement,” LaGrone said.

The Hall of Famer said with a laugh that his goal is just “to keep doing and keep living, I guess.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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