After working at Welfare Square in Salt Lake City for 45 years, Lenore Kimball Nitsch values independence and dignity.
She was hired in 1943 as the front receptionist and has seen the Church's welfare program help hundreds and hundreds to become independent and retain their self-respect.Elder Glen L. Rudd of the First Quorum of the Seventy, a former Welfare Square coordinator and her supervisor for nearly 25, described her work.
"She's always been our chief receptionist," he said. "There is something deeply spiritual about her that radiates over the telephone, and when people meet her in person. People from all over the world have visited Welfare Square; they have felt from her everything the Church represents.
"You don't meet her without receiving a spiritual lift. She is a star."
She has greeted rulers of countries, prime ministers, heads of universities and government leaders. She also has worked with General Authorities; among them was her cousin, President Spencer W. Kimball, and early leaders of the Welfare Program, particularly President Harold B. Lee.
"President Lee," Elder Rudd continued, "used to say that he didn't have the Christmas spirit until he'd been to Welfare Square and heard Lenore and her husband, Siegfried, sing `The Holy City,'" which they did for 24 Christmases. After hearing them once, President Lee remarked, "I have read of the Holy City. I have heard of the Holy City. This morning, I have seen the Holy City."
Though she is paralyzed from the waist down, Sister Nitsch, who recently retired, rarely missed work. Her husband drove her to work until his death in 1968. She then learned to drive a car with hand controls. Since she retired, she has continued to serve at Welfare Square as a volunteer.
Hers is a quiet life, characterized more by the music in her voice when she answers the telephone than by newspaper headlines. However, at one time she and her husband made the headlines in an incident that was, she said, insightful of her entire life.
The front page Deseret News headline in 1961 read: "Salt Lake couple saved in Canada boat upset."
Assured that it was safe, they'd gone boating on a calm, glacier-fed pool near Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta. Their boat had been tugged from the pool by an erratic current into the raging, twisting Bow River.
Downstream, with trees and debris plunging with them through the foaming water, they came to a fork in the river, "where a swirling black hole that looked like the pit of death" sucked in and smashed their boat.
"The next thing I knew, I was clinging to a huge tree with water dashing over and around me," she recalled. Downstream, her husband was clutching to another tree. Somehow he made it to shore. With superhuman effort, he reached her side. Miraculously, he pulled her out and they crawled to shore.
Then they walked all night in sub-freezing temperatures, crossing smaller streams and bogs. Eventually they came to a highway, were found and taken to ranger headquarters. A woman saw them coming up to the building and screamed, "They've alive!"
The woman's surprise might not have been so great if she'd known Lenore Nitsch better. Whirlpools and streams to ford - in one form or another - have been obstacles since her birth in Salt Lake City in 1918.
Hers was a traumatic birth. She was not expected to live, as she had an opening at the base of her spine containing a two-inch sac. Nerve ganglia and the spinal cord were exposed, and were surrounded by continually draining ulcers. Doctors knew little about dealing with spina bifida. When Lenore was 20 months old, a doctor managed to close the inch-and-a-half opening, although by then she was permanently paralyzed.
She learned to walk with the help of crutches. Young Lenore did not attend school because of he disability. Nor did she attend Church. Her only Primary was in "beautiful days" at the Primary Children's Hospital, where stays frequently punctuated her childhood.
She and her sisters were very close. Lenore was taught to read by a younger sister, Thelma. Her older sisters, Joyce and Elaine, also helped her.
The family lived in impoverished circumstances. Lenore was 9 when her mother went to work during the Great Depression. About that same time, Lenore developed a blister on her foot that developed into a bone infection, Osteomyelitis. Again she spent endless days in the hospital. When she was home - alone during the day - the spunky child washed her own bandage pads and dressings with well water, and occasionally picked her way outside to glean bits of coal for the stove.
The infection lingered eight years and doctors wanted to amputate the infected leg. In "a story of faith," one doctor was willing to operate rather than amputate. She held her unfeeling foot while the doctor removed a peice of gangrenous bone. She eventually recovered from the illness but 10 years had passed.
"No embroidery, no radio, no drawing paper, not even a book - nothing was available," she recalled. "It is with regret that I look back on the hours spent sitting with two chairs drawn together, my leg pillowed and elevated on one end and my head in my arms on the other, sleeping away the long hours."
When Lenore was 18, her mother moved the family to California. There, two years later the Oakland Board of Education learned of her uneducated status and sent a teacher, Myrtie Cobb, who instructed her. "I had my first taste of school at age 20," she said. The teacher "knew of the struggle going on within me and the desire to break out of my small world of cobwebs."
Lenore, restless with the bit of education she'd gained, visited Utah on vacation. In Salt Lake City a childhood friend, Siegfried Nitsch, himself with a spinal curvature, proposed to her. Family members and some doctors opposed the marriage. They "came very close to shutting the door on the only happiness I have ever known." She returned from the vacation to her work of ironing shirts for 15 cents, and to more school instruction. A patriarchal blessing given to her at this bleak time made promises "beyond my greatest dreams or expectations."
She was invited again to Salt Lake when her sister Thelma was being married in the Salt Lake Temple. Once in Salt Lake, she was determined to be independent and refused to go back home. She began job hunting. Disabled and largely uneducated, she was turned down time and time again. One day in the employment office, she overheard someone say, "If she has determination enough to keep coming, I'll find something for her or die trying.'
Something came shortly. She was called for an interview at Welfare Square, and hired.
"I do not think anyone can possibly know or understand my feelings, or how eternally grateful I am for what took place that day," she said.
Her income jumped from $14 to $75 a month, and she became independent, fiercely so. She and Siegfried were married a year later.
Since that time, she has taught Sunday School for 25 years. She was YWMIA president, wrote 10 roadshows, and presented one at June conference. She has cared for her own home, cared for her sister Thelma for several years, was president of the Kimball Family Association and is now music chairman in the Salt Lake Millcreek Stake.
"I know it is only through the Church Welfare Program and the genuine interest of individuals that I have been able not only to sustain myself but to do so with pride and dignity," she said. "This I can never repay.