‘Always moving forward’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 6, 2013

hen Rick Eldridge first heard of the proposed Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, he only planned on making a monetary donation. Turns out, he decided to get involved on a much bigger basis. Rufty- Holmes celebrated its 25th anniversary on Friday, Jan. 4, and Eldridge has been the only executive director the center has ever known.
Eldridge already had 12 years of service with the North Carolina Prison System but felt the time was right for a job change. As the assistant supervisor at the Salisbury high-rise prison, he was encouraged to move to Raleigh for further advancement. Eldridge and his wife, Susan, loved Salisbury and wanted to raise their two sons here. The original board of directors had planned the new senior center, but now needed an executive director. The board saw Eldridge’s strengths in planning and organization of programs, but a few voiced the opinion that he wouldn’t stay for more than a year or two. Eldridge was hired Oct. 1, 1987.
Rufty-Holmes Senior Center opened to the public Jan. 4, 1988 in a new 10,000 square foot building following a community-wide fundraising campaign. Generous support came from the Rufty and Hurley-Holmes families, Rowan County, the City of Salisbury, and more than 1,000 individual donors. The cost of construction and the original furnishings was $704,000. The entire cost was covered by donors, allowing the center to be debt-free from day one.
The center has had some identity challenges.
“It has been a constant battle getting people to recognize just what a senior center is. We have over 10,000 people a year using the facility, but we also get lots of calls wanting to know if Rufty-Holmes is a rest home or nursing home. Truth is that people are living longer and happier, and our mission is to keep it that way,” said Eldridge. “At first, we were serving 60- and 70-year-olds. Now, we have hundreds who are in their 80s and 90s. There has been such an improvement in longevity and independence.”
Rowan County provided seed monies for the Center’s initial operation and has since supported the annual operating budget, along with the city of Salisbury. The city of Salisbury also donated the land where the center stands. Rufty-Holmes Senior Center became a Rowan County United Way Agency in 1990 and receives federal and state aging grants to operate community-based programs designed to assist local older adults in remaining active members of the community.
The center quickly became known as a model senior center in the state, and was chosen to pilot the state senior center certification program developed by the NC Division of Aging & Adult Services. As a result of participation in this pilot program, Rufty-Holmes was named North Carolina’s first ‘Senior Center of Excellence’ in 1999. In 2001, the center was accredited by the National Institute of Senior Centers, the first in North Carolina as well.
Many more national and state program recognitions have been received over the years, and the center has enlarged its campus facilities with three major building additions. In 1995, a 2,000 square foot multi-purpose addition was built which is named after Jim and Gordon Hurley. An Aquatic Exercise Facility followed in 1998, with the Archibald C. Rufty Fitness Annex completed in 2008. The main center building now comprises 20,000 square feet, doubling the original size.
With all this success have come some challenges. Eldridge pointed out that one of the biggest is the Baby Boomer population that is now becoming eligible to use senior services. “About 25 percent of our membership is now in that category,” Eldridge said. “We have to offer things that they are interested in because many of them don’t want to think of themselves as being old. Fundraising is another challenge. We are constantly seeking funds for operating money, though we believe that this related staff time could be better used for providing direct services. We have always finished the year in the black, but on occasion we end up with as little as $1,000 in the bank.”
While Eldridge deals with those challenges regularly, he is quick to point out some of the humorous events during his tenure. Once, coming back from lunch he spotted a woman on the ground in front of a car in the parking lot. “My only thought was that the driver had hit the woman,” Eldridge said. “ I ran to her quickly. She told me that this happens to her a lot and that it was her husband in the car. She had fallen and knew that her husband couldn’t get her up, so he just sat in the car until someone else came along.”
The Center gets some interesting calls on occasion. A man called one day wanting to know if he could get free Viagra, to which Eldridge replied, “We do provide vitality, but not by prescription.”
Rufty-Holmes offers lots of games and contests. One spur-of-the- moment challenge came up when several of the members of the men’s health and fitness club decided to have a watermelon seed spitting contest. The seeds ended up in the flower bed, and some large new watermelons were the result. A staff member saw a woman loading them into her car, but Eldridge stopped her. He laughed afterwards saying, “I guess that is entitlement to the extreme.”
The Rufty-Holmes Senior Center was accredited for the third time in 2011, making it one of only seven in the nation to complete the process three times. While enrollment continues to climb, members pay a one-time enrollment fee of $15, and usually pay for extra services that they use. The Robertson Foundation provides a scholarship fund for those who need assistance with any costs.
Eldridge does find time to get away from the center on occasion. He and his wife have a cabin in Davidson County, and he often spends weekends there. Eldridge has taken up running and enjoys college sports and his church work at First United Methodist Church of Salisbury. “Our boys, Stephen and Thomas, are out of the house, so now we spend lots of time with our two female labs and my stepmother who lives close by,” Eldridge said.
To celebrate the 25th Anniversary, the Rufty-Holmes board of directors and staff planned a special weekend. On Friday evening, there was a gala and dinner for dignitaries and special guests that included a recap of the center’s history and an announcement of a new strategic plan. Sunday afternoon, Jan. 6, a 25th Anniversary open house is planned for 3-5 p.m., complete with facility tours, historical exhibits, refreshments and live music by the Mid-Life Crisis band.
When the anniversary weekend is over, Eldridge and his staff will go back to work. He credits long-range planning for the success of the center. “We will talk about this at the anniversary gala. We will get input from all the individuals and groups who use the center, as well as the staff and board. Our discussion will include where we have been, where we are now, and where we want to be. The center wants to keep doing new things each year,” said Eldridge.
Board President Mary Frances Edens commented on the relationship between Eldridge and Rufty-Holmes Senior Center: “One can’t be there without the other. Rick has been our only executive director. He is an amazing leader.
“There is something good going on all the time,” she added. “The center crosses all socio-economic boundaries. Walk in the front door, and you immediately get a good feel. It is an accepting, friendly place.”
Personally Eldridge echoes much the same sentiment: “I have had the opportunity to know and enjoy lots of neat people, but the hardest part is that many of the special people are no longer with us. We have tried to always be moving forward. With that, my own retirement will eventually come. I won’t have any regrets. I had the opportunity to do just exactly what I wanted to do.”

David Freeze is a freelance writer.