Jefferson Award for Public Service 2012 winner John R. Urbigkit is someone you want to know, if you don’t already.
“It was a total surprise,” Mr. Urbigkit describes his experience of winning this award for his volunteer work as a foster grandparent at Triumph High School in Cheyenne. “Totally unexpected,” he smiles as he shows me the medal he received on Monday, April 9, at the statewide award ceremony in Casper, Wyoming.
John is not new to volunteering. With his wife of 57 years, Margaret, and while raising their six sons, he spent 17 years volunteering with boy scouts in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. He was an Assistant Scout Master, ran a training program for scouts and earned the Silver Beaver, the highest award for a boy scout volunteer.
During that same span of time John volunteered as an Emergency Medical Technician. Although this volunteering was without accolades he does share two stories. “The saddest was hauling a boy who fell out of a tree house and broke his neck.” The boy was semi conscious in the hospital and the EMT’s stayed with him until the doctor arrived to examine him.
The second story he makes clear to me “you can print.” The EMT crew he worked with had just returned from a run to take a patient to the hospital. The floor of the garage where they parked was slick from the snow and ice. As soon as he stepped out of the ambulance he says, “I slipped in the water – back we went to the hospital.” Marge adds, “With 7 or 8 broken ribs.” John continues, “We just got back after being out in miserable weather and there we were making another trip to the hospital.” He laughs.
When I ask John why he volunteers I site one of the founders of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ husband John Kennedy in his inspirational speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” John shakes his head “no,” gets up and walks into the kitchen.
He returns with a picture of a young man he has spent the last few years mentoring. The picture, resting in a solid frame, shows Grandpa John, as he is known to his kids at Triumph, in a white lab coat with his arm around this young man. With tears in his eyes, John describes how he has encouraged this boy to stay in school. Through those few years together, the two of them, one approaching 20 and the other 80, struggled with issues that neither one would care to discuss today.
Again I pursue Mr. Urbigkit with the question, “Why do you volunteer? What made you volunteer as an EMT?” His answer is as straightforward as he is, “Margaret asked me to.”
Margaret, (Marge to John and those close to them,) interjects, “We needed help on the ambulance. I was already volunteering and we were desperate for help, so I asked John.” With their young sons at home they volunteered for separate night shifts. Margaret adds, “Sometimes John would just get home from working in New York – not even finish his supper and he’d be out on a call. Once he was out on a call and missed his morning bus to go into the city.” Selfless is just one of the ways to describe Mr. Urbigkit, dedicated is another.
The Jefferson Award for Public Service is awarded annually to those citizens who are recognized in their community for altruistic dedication to public service. John was one of 40 nominations in Wyoming this year. A panel of five independent judges scored the nominations deciding on the top four. Those four nominations were then sent to Washington D.C. where a second panel made the final decision.
The Jefferson Award for Public Service in Wyoming is sponsored by:http://www.servewyoming.org/
Again I pursue Mr. Urbigkit, “why did you volunteer as a foster grandparent?” I was looking for something similar to the mission of the Jefferson Award “One person can make a difference. That is the heart of democracy at work.”
Instead, I get the only honest answer this man can give. “Marge told me to do it.” Margaret has volunteered as a foster grandparent for many years, first at Head Start and now at an elementary school in Cheyenne. John continues, “I wasn’t doing anything. She suggested I talk to the office staff at foster grandparents. After I finished the training I requested I work with older kids.”
He was assigned to Amber Marten’s biology class at Triumph High School. Two years of science is a requirement in Wyoming for graduation from high school. John states, “All students at Triumph have to take biology. Every student cycles through.” John is pleased to say he “meets every student at Triumph.”
In her nomination of Mr. Urbigkit, Ms. Martens writes: Grandpa John is, “honest, gentle, kind and encouraging. He has students trust and respect.” She continues, “Grandpa is the meaning of ‘dedication.’ He models true strength and courage.” She concludes by stating, “He spends his days teaching us the virtues of patience, self discipline and selflessness.”
Doing the right thing is just who he is. It isn’t something that is outside of him. John wouldn’t know anything else. His humble upbringing might be part of the reason.
He was born in the small town of Duncan, Wyoming near the Wind Rivers. The house the Urbigkit’s lived in had a luxury almost unheard of in those days, an indoor toilet. The town doesn’t exist anymore, John says he, “drove by the old place once, there was no sign of a town whatsoever, a few horses and cows in the field.”
His grade school education is familiar to most Wyoming natives who were born in the 1930’s. It was a one room school house that he traveled to by horse and later, by bus. He spent much of his high school years by himself. He stayed at the house the family owned in Lander during the week and would return to the ranch outside of Dubois on the weekends. He went on to the University of Wyoming, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. Before starting his career, he spent two years in Alaska in the forestry industry and pursued graduate studies at University of Nevada, Reno. As with many Wyomingites, his career took him far from his home state, but his retirement brought him home, to Wyoming’s benefit.
I ask John, trying to get some hint of where his nobility comes from, “who influenced you the most as a young person?” He has two people he credits with his upbringing. First, a science teacher in high school that made chemistry fun and interesting. The second, his mother, Bertha Urbigkit, who had to tell him more than once (I think because his high school chemistry teacher got him interested in blowing things up), “Take care of your hands, they will earn you a living.”
John and Margaret will travel to Washington D.C. in early June. The top nominees from every state will be honored. John thinks he will wear the same suit or perhaps rent a tux if it is required. Margaret will buy a new dress, something she doesn’t wear often but will for this special occasion.
John repeats, “Not for publication,” a lot to me during our interview. As he tells me stories about his work and life, I wonder how am I supposed to keep these stories to myself when there is so much of this man in them. One day, when he can’t find me, I think I’ll tell more of his stories.