Staff Stories - February 22, 2021
By Liz Pomerleau
Ruth Walsh, retired lieutenant colonel of the United States Marine Corps, Episcopal priest, hospice chaplain, and founding supervisor of the Goodwin House Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, passed away in January 2021. Ruth touched the lives of many in the Goodwin House community. Staff members past and present remember her as a valued coworker, educator and friend.
Ruth broke many barriers for women everywhere she went. She was both a gentle, caring person and a disciplined marine. Compassion flowed through her, and she became the heart of our CPE program, which offers spiritual care training for ministers and chaplains. Ruth’s work helped to establish what is now a robust course of training at Goodwin House.
I spoke with several of her former colleagues to hear their memories of working with Ruth and their admiration for the work she did in our community.
Ruth came to Goodwin House in 1998 as a chaplain and CPE supervisor in training. During her time at Goodwin House, she achieved certification as a CPE supervisor and in 2004 brought the then fledgling CPE program to full accreditation with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. She also helped to start Goodwin House Hospice, which now serves ___ individuals throughout Northern Virginia.
Stefanie Reponen is a current GHBC Resident. During her career, Stefanie once served as executive director of the Goodwin House Foundation, and in that role, she traveled with Ruth to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin when Ruth presented herself to be certified as a CPE supervisor. Ruth had dedicated years to training for this high-pressure interview. “Ruth was nervous, but calm,” Stefanie remembered. “She knew she was in the right place and hoped the rest of the world agreed with her.”
Thankfully, they did agree! Ruth was granted associate supervisor status, and began supervising CPE students independently.
Linda Lateana, Goodwin House chief operating officer, worked with Ruth to start the CPE program. “One thing I remember about Ruth is that she had a sixth sense of who needed her to be there,” Linda said. “No matter what was going on, if staff needed her, if a resident was dying, whatever the need was, she was there. She was everywhere!”
Cathy Farmer, director of clinical services for Goodwin House Alexandria, couldn’t agree more. Cathy was the director of nursing at GHBC when Ruth was with us. Cathy remarked, “Ruth was just wonderful with the CPE students, but she also knew the Goodwin House residents really well. She was always at someone’s bedside when they needed her. She loved to sing at their bedside. Of course, she was also a retired marine; when she walked she almost marched. She was also very sensitive and really looked at what was behind someone’s feelings.”
Cindy Nothom, who is now retired from her position as director of Goodwin House Hospice, was the hospice nurse when she worked with Ruth during her tenure as chaplain. She had several stories to share of her memories with Ruth.
Cindy remembers that Ruth did not shy away from the pain and loss that people encountered, but felt it an opportunity to allow their faith to bring them through despair on their search for healing. “She had this way of just showing up. I’d turn around and she’d be coming through the door. She’d say, ‘Am I needed?’ ‘How did you know?’ I’d respond. ‘I just had a feeling I was needed.’ she would reply.”
Ruth was particularly gifted at working with families who were on totally different pages about what was going on with the hospice patient. “They might be belligerent with one another,” Cindy shared. “Ruth was the one who could handle that. She would have them come to her office. She would have on her Marine Corps posture and her gentle but stern voice. She would sit them down and help them to understand that they needed to put their differences aside and think about the person who was dying and what they were going to do for that person. She would take all that bitterness and that hate and help them understand that it needed to go outside so they could focus on what we were going to do for that person together.”
Cindy fondly remembers the many different sides of Ruth. “She was the diplomat, the marine officer, the mother, the teacher. Some people who were totally broken up by the death of their loved one, Ruth would enfold them in a big motherly hug.”
Dan Duggan, the CPE supervisor who took over from Ruth following her retirement, shared, “I have always appreciated the groundwork that Ruth laid. There was much to build upon. I am saddened by her death. It is not easy to lose those who have gone before us to lay foundations that we are called to build upon. But I give thanks, too.”
I also feel gratitude for the past and hope for the future. I am only the third supervisor to direct the CPE program. As I look at this remarkable woman, as I hear the stories and memories others have shared, I am in awe of what she accomplished. It is amazing to see how the projects she started have grown into thriving, vibrant programs.
I can’t wait to see what comes in the next decades as we continue to engage in creativity, hard work and caring for one another. We continue to reach even more people with the Goodwin House core mission to support, honor and uplift the lives of older adults and the people who care for them – a mission that Ruth lived out to the fullest.
Elizabeth (Liz) Pomerleau is a chaplain and ACPE Educator. She is the Director of Clinical Pastoral Education at Goodwin House, Inc. and is a Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains. She has been working in spiritual care since 2010 and is passionate about interfaith community and learning from and with people of all and no faiths. Liz is a wife to Dan Pomerleau, and they are the lucky parents of Lucia, who was born in 2018. Liz and her family are care-givers for her mother-in-law, Diane, who was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease over a decade ago. Diane teaches Liz that rich, meaningful relationship is possible through every stage of dementia. Liz believes that people with dementia teach us how to stay connected with emotions and the heart – the essentials of pastoral care – if we can slow down to discover this gift.