Harvard Retirement Home resident says owners, piano saved his life

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In a hallway draped in history, Sylvan Steinberg brings a piano to life.

His weary legs carry him there slowly every day around lunchtime. He calls out to others in the Harvard Retirement Home that he's lived in for the past several months.

"You better start moving there, Ethel," he says as he eases down to the bench. A few jigsaw puzzles are stacked above the piano's keys.

"Alright, let's go, love," he says.

His fingers hit the keys swiftly, trained to do so years ago when his late parents brought him to piano lessons as a boy. It's rock and roll, he stresses. That's all he plays.

With clinks of silverware and plates in the background as the day's lunch routine begins, the music fills the home. Residents begin to gather, finding wooden seats nearby, tapping toes.

Her hands resting on her walker, one woman puts her head down, closes her eyes, listens. The music takes her somewhere else for awhile, a place only she knows.

Sometimes, Steinberg will sing a bit. "I'm no Johnny Mathis," he jokes, though he looks a bit like the classic pop singer.

"Now look at those smiles over there," he says between tunes.

Living there at the home, playing piano, performing, he's alive.

Before the home, he wasn't really living, he says.

A vision

Built in 1866, history seems to seep out of the two-story Harvard Retirement Home, deemed a landmark and one of the oldest buildings in Harvard. Look closely, and remnants of the home's former days as a hospital can be spotted.

An old medicine cabinet sits in the hallway where Steinberg plays.

And the office, where the home's owners, Bill and Kathy Schack, work without air conditioning, was once the hospital's laboratory.

One resident remembers the same window view from the days when she gave birth in the former hospital.

The building was a nursing home for about two decades and then had sat empty for about five years when the Schacks bought it. They looked beyond its layers of dust.

"My husband had this vision when he saw it," Kathy Schack said. "He said, 'This is it.' "

That was 30 years ago.

Kathy was a nurse and Bill a social worker at the time. The two saw a need, became determined to fill it. They both provided homecare and hospice to seniors, watched as many of them ended up in nursing homes.

"We'd come home at night and talk about what we did that day," Kathy Schack remembered.

The seniors they saw were lonely. Like the historic home before the Schacks discovered it, it was as if time had forgotten them.

With some assistance, perhaps just someone to be there if they needed it, the seniors could remain more independent, the couple thought.

They opened the retirement home with room for 16 seniors. Thirteen live there now. They eat together, take part in activities, come to rely on one another for company.

"I try not to be too nursey here," Kathy Schack said.

She's there to help a senior with a sore or something of that nature. If the senior were living alone, that sore might have been neglected, become infected or worse.

Raising two grown boys in the home, the Schacks are there 24 hours a day, alternating shifts.

Over the years, they've replaced the roof, built a full deck and put in 68 new windows, all installed personally by Bill Schack, among numerous other improvements.

"We just keep plugging along," Kathy Schack said.

They have five employees, including what residents say are some of the best cooks in the business.

Seniors typically come to the home from the Harvard area, but the Schacks also get referrals from hospitals and elsewhere.

That's how they came to know Steinberg and his "big personality," as described by Kathy.

"They really perk up when he plays," she said.

Reason to live

At age 68, Steinberg imagines he'll spend the rest of his life in Harvard. Since moving there from Vernon Hills, he's volunteered for the city's Chamber of Commerce and the community radio station, 1610 AM.

He's constantly looking for a job, preferably one in sales, as he says he's the "best salesman in the world, especially on the telephone."

Hoping to fulfill his mother's wish that he be married by the age of 70, he asks that it be made clear that he's available.

"I've got 15 months to go," he says.

It's a much different world than the one Steinberg lived in when the police discovered his Vernon Hills home in shambles.

Bipolar and suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, he was in severe depression and had isolated himself for five years. He'd only leave his home to walk to a nearby 7-Eleven. After he left his garage door open for awhile, a neighbor called police.

"My house was unfit because I didn't care about anything," he says.

He was transferred to a psych unit in Woodstock, where he stayed for 19 days before ending up in Harvard.

Bit by bit, he worked to turn his life around, continues to do so.

"They've taken care of me," he says of the Schacks. "They gave me a reason to live. They taught me to be a man again. My heart has grown so much by being here."

His T-shirt promotes the Harvard Retirement Home with the home's name on one side, the words, "A place to be proud of" on the other.

"Pull up a chair," he tells a senior as he waves from the piano bench.

He leans in, holds up two fingers about an inch apart.

"I was this close to dying," he says.

"Right now, I'm just grateful to be alive," he says. "God has made it my responsibility to put smiles on people's faces."

And then it's onto another round of music.

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