“Olive Reece: What One Voice Can Do,” Ensign, June 1986, 58–59
A victim of crippling arthritis for more than forty years, now confined to a wheelchair in an Indianapolis nursing home, Olive Reece is not what you’d think. You might expect to find a bitter, depressed, lonely woman; instead, you encounter an energetic, witty lady who has proven that her influence and love can extend far beyond the confines of her wheelchair and the walls of the nursing home.
When Olive’s arthritis finally forced her into a wheelchair several years ago, she continued to live alone and care for herself in an apartment specially designed for handicapped people. It didn’t take long for her to notice that there was no way for the non-ambulatory residents of the complex to get across a wide ditch and a busy highway to an adjacent shopping center.
“The apartment owners received government subsidies because the apartments were for handicapped individuals,” recalls Olive, “and it didn’t seem right that the residents had no access to the shopping center.” So Olive began contacting anyone in a position to help, including the newspapers, and soon a bridge was constructed over the ditch. But it was no victory. The bridge consisted of many steep stairs, preventing its use by those in wheelchairs.
So Olive started over. She wrote letters to local government heads and again she appealed to the public through the newspapers. Finally she contacted officials in Washington, D.C., making an eloquent plea on behalf of handicapped people everywhere for accessibility to shopping centers. After two years, the stairs were finally replaced by a ramp.
Olive’s life has been characterized by her gritty determination. Since contracting arthritis at the age of twenty, pain and discomfort have been continually with her through rearing three children and working as a registered nurse. When her children were teenagers, Olive and her husband were divorced, and she continued to provide for her son and two daughters. As her affliction became increasingly painful and debilitating, she was confined to a wheelchair and had to quit the nursing job she loved.
Then she broke both of her legs in a fall and was hospitalized and put in traction. At what Olive calls the lowest point in her life, she lay in a hospital bed, questioning the worth of her life and even doubting the existence of God. One evening an aide entered the room to help ready Olive for the night.
“I am so miserable, all I need is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing to usher me out and I would go gladly,” muttered Olive, instantly wondering why she had said such a “dumb thing.”
“Would you like to hear the choir sing, Mrs. Reece?” Cathy, the aide, questioned lightly. “I think I can manage that.” A few moments later she returned with a tape recorder and a few cassettes. As the soothing music of the choir wrapped itself around Olive and her pains and frustration, she slept.
The next day Olive questioned Cathy about producing the tapes so quickly. “Do you know what a Mormon is?” Cathy countered, smiling.
“Sure. They all live in Salt Lake City.”
“Wrong,” Cathy answered, her eyes laughing. “There’s at least one right here in Franklin.”
And so began a new chapter in Olive’s life. A few days later Cathy introduced her to a pair of sister missionaries, who made daily visits and soon proposed bringing in the elders to administer to her.
“OK,” Olive told them. “Just make sure that your elders know that I am not a Mormon and never will be.” Several weeks later when Olive was discharged from the hospital and her casts came off, she was baptized. Franklin had another Latter-day Saint.
“What was so convincing was that they cared about me, even though I was a middle-aged stranger who was flat on my back and bitter about it. They loved me into the Church, and because of that I quit mourning for what could not be and began to think about my eternal possibilities.”
Soon Olive became a telephone reassurance lady for the Johnson County Senior Citizens’ Center, calling the homebound to see that their needs were being met and that they were safe and happy. She continued to work for legislation on behalf of senior citizens and the handicapped (although she insists that she is not handicapped, only “inconvenienced”). Her dedicated work has won her a nomination for the Ivy Award for Outstanding Service, as well as several commendations from the Indianapolis mayor’s office and many other civic groups.
In March 1983, no longer able to care for herself, Olive moved into a nursing home. But she hasn’t let that curtail her activities. Each month she does her visiting teaching by mail and telephone and continues to write letters of love and encouragement to home-bound senior citizens.
“Olive is one of the greatest women in our ward,” says Terilee Jensen, Olive’s Relief Society president. “She is a lady of rare courage and compassion.”