Our Neighbors.... Larry Penk

Larry Penk of Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton comes to work early nearly every weekday and helps serve breakfast in the first floor dining room. Then, after a short report time, he makes the rounds to visit the residents in the nursing home - ...

Inter-Faith Care Center Administrator Larry Penk helps serve lunch to residents (from left) Bill Ahiers, Sophie Parenteau, Ruth Anton and Ellen McCorrison. Penk also helps at breakfast and visits residents twice a day.

Larry Penk of Inter-Faith Care Center in Carlton comes to work early nearly every weekday and helps serve breakfast in the first floor dining room. Then, after a short report time, he makes the rounds to visit the residents in the nursing home - all 96 or so of them!

"A lot of it is just, 'Good morning. How are you doing? What's new?'" he said, "so it's not really a time consuming thing. But it just means so much to them. That's what I enjoy most about my job, being with the residents."

Penk also helps serve lunch in the main floor dining room and usually makes the rounds to call on residents once again in the afternoon. And though doing these things in the line of work would be admirable in and of itself, it's even more remarkable when you consider he's the nonprofit corporation's top administrator....

Penk was born in Stewart, Minn., a tiny town whose claim to fame was having one of the first Dairy Queens in the state, which was attached to a bowling alley.

He was one of four brothers, born and raised on the family farm.


"We all worked on the farm - milked cows, took care of the chickens, baled hay - the whole ball of wax," he said. "There were parts of it that I enjoyed, but I hated the commitment to milk cows every day. I still enjoy watching things grow, however. It's kind of in my blood."

When Penk graduated from Stewart High School, Penk had decided he wanted to become a geologist.

"Once I went to college, though, I didn't even attempt to get into geology," he confessed, "though I always liked math and science, I didn't like that much of it!"

Instead, he graduated from Moorhead State University in 1968 with a degree in business and then went on into teaching.

"I had enjoyed the business classes in high school," he explained, "and I also wrestled, so I wanted to try to combine teaching with coaching wrestling."

Following graduation, Penk went to Foley, Minn., to teach senior high business classes and coach junior high wrestling. About a month after he started teaching, he received his draft notice.

"I wound up getting deferred to the end of the school year because they couldn't replace the wrestling position," he said. "Then I was drafted into the Army in 1969. I took the train across to Fort Lewis, Wash. It was a wonderful trip, but it also gave me more time to think about what was I was getting into!"

From there, he went on to Fort Gordon, Ga., and became part of the military police. Later, he was transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C., and became part of a riot control unit.


"That was during the moratoriums in Washington, D.C., and twice we flew into Washington as a riot control unit to be there if we were needed," he related. "We drove a huge truck full of hand grenades and ammunition. It was like we were going to fight a war - when many of us actually wished we were marching instead!"

That was also the time of the student violence at Kent State University, so his unit had to put in many hours of extra riot control training - most of which he said were spent at the motor pool working on vehicles and sitting in on lectures.

Penk got out of the service a month early so he could attend summer school at St. Cloud State to take some additional business credits before going back to Foley to teach once again.

"It was really a difficult time for me," he admitted. "After being in the military, I didn't know just what I wanted to do. Part of it was anger I had to give up two years of my life to serve, but part of it was coming back and realizing that experience had changed my life and wondering if I really wanted to go back."

Though he said the first couple of years teaching once again were a little difficult, he nonetheless enjoyed it and spent eight more years there.

Then, some people he knew who worked at the Foley Nursing Center told him the administrator was supposed to be retiring soon and encouraged him to apply for an opening as assistant administrator.

"It was a big change of direction for me," Penk admitted. "Some people asked me, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' Going from teenagers to senior citizens was certainly a change, but I knew a lot of people who worked there, many of them parents of students I taught in school. I also enjoyed being with the residents because I truly like people. But I had decided I wanted to try it, so I worked there for three years as the assistant administrator while I went to school to get licensed."

To make a long story short, the administrator decided not to retire right away, so Penk began to look around and landed a job as the administrator of Prairie Manor Nursing home in Blooming Prairie, Minn., where he worked for a year and a half.


It was then he interviewed for the position at Carlton Nursing Home (now Inter-Faith Care Center) in Carlton, and he was offered the job in 1983. He moved up here the Friday after the notorious Thanksgiving blizzard of 1983.

"I was renting a place on West Chub Lake Road, which is narrow and curvy," he recalled. "I got moved in on Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday night it started to snow and we had another storm. I remember getting out to this wonderful lake home I was renting and it had snow on the railing a foot and a half deep! I didn't have snow tires on my car, and I couldn't get out of my garage to come to work my first day, so I had to call in and tell them I couldn't make it to work that day. I figured they'd gotten by without me for that long, so they could get by without me for another day!" he chuckled.

Little did he know just how badly the facility actually needed him.

At that time, the adjacent Pine View senior apartments had just been built with an interest rate of 14 or 15 percent on the bonds, and they were only half full. There was a law suit was pending, the union contract was about to expire, and there had been several changes of ownership and leadership, some of which were surrounded in scandal. To top it off, the nursing home was growing outdated and overcrowded, with three residents to a room.

"I probably bit off more than I could chew if I had known all that!" he admitted. "Eventually, Pine View filled up and I managed to survive that. Once we got our head above water a little bit, we began talking about a new facility. That was a long, long battle, and we finally broke ground for the new building in 2000, after purchasing property from five different property owners across the road."

The nursing home moved in to its new facility in June 2001 and became known as Inter-Faith Care Center.

"Now the only problem is trying to pay for it!" he exclaimed.

In retrospect, Penk reflected that the building project turned out to be one of the most gratifying things about his career, along with the new options it afforded the community, with not only Pine View senior housing but Carlton Place assisted living, a meals on wheels program and all the related services.


"It's offered community members an improved quality of life through a better facility," he summed up.

Penk and board of Inter-Faith have also worked with the city of Carlton to bring the Dial-a-Ride service to Carlton, initially helping to fund it as well. They also worked to get safer crossing measures on the highway between the nursing home and the apartments, including a digital speed sign.

He said he's also enjoyed meeting and enjoying so many different residents, families and staff members.

"In 25 years there's been a lot of changes, though we haven't had a lot of changeover in staffing," he said. "We have a lot of 25- to 35-year employees."

Penk said the other highlight of his time at Inter-Faith was meeting my wife, Rosemary Tobin, also a licensed administrator who was working for Care Providers of Minnesota, a professional trade association, at the time. After several years of being just friends, Penk said he asked her out, but she was reluctant because the CEO of her company had discouraged employees from dating members. Finally, as the story goes, one day she called him out of the blue and asked if he wanted to go out.

"I told her, 'Sorry, Rosemary, you already had your chance!'" he chuckled. "We knew each other well enough so I could say that, but I think she was a little taken aback!"

The two went out for dinner and dancing - "and the rest is history!" Penk declared.

Today, Rosemary works as the part-time chaplain at Inter-Faith after earning her chaplaincy at St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth.


"Not everyone can work with their spouse, but for us it's a nice situation," Penk commented.

Today, things are basically running smoothly at Inter-Faith Care Center. Penk said occupancy at the nursing home is usually at "99.8 percent full," he indicated, as well as at the assisted living apartments, and he supervises a staff of some 135-140 employees.

The non-profit corporation, comprised by six local churches, that operates Inter-Faith has also licensed a child day care center in the dining room of the former nursing home building across the street, and the rest of the building is leased to the CARE chemical dependency program.

Penk has been active in the American Cancer Society and the Carlton Lions Club, and he said he and Rosemary fill their free time with hiking, reading, visiting with friends, and dancing whenever they get the chance.

Penk said he's seen nursing home care change dramatically over the past quarter century.

"There is much more short-term rehab and not nearly as many long-term residents," he related. "We see a lot more people going into nursing homes because hospitals are moving people out more quickly, so we're getting all the hip fractures, knee replacements and a lot of those sorts of things sooner than we used to. A lot of people then leave to go back to their original setting. Also, there's a lot more options. When you look at our campus, there's places to get more care, a little bit lesser care and even less care across the street at Pine View Apartments. We still do emergency response to all three places as well as offering meals and housekeeping."

To be sure, the nursing home industry has its share of challenges as well.

"When you look at the curve for increased life expectancy and the number of people who will be over 85 in the next five to 10 years," said Penk, "it's kind of scary, thinking how we're going to take care of them with fewer people left to provide care."


He said the problem of financing is always a challenge, because the state sets the nursing home rates and then leaves it up to the local providers to figure out how to live with them.

Penk is looking forward to the future of Inter-Faith Care Center and is justifiably proud of how far its come.

"Fortunately, everything has worked out," he said with customary modesty. "It doesn't seem like I've been here 25 years already. We've certainly had our ups and downs, but I'm fortunate to have a good board to work for - and an excellent staff that helps make me look good!"

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