by Will Lindner
These apples have not fallen far from the tree
Mhere’s “stuff” all over the place at the Brookside Nursing Home, on rural Christian Street in White River Junction. One might have to pick something up off a chair before sitting down, or pluck a pile of papers off the copier before using it. Desks are busy places, and look like it. Shelves are full, with boxes of records stacked beneath them. People — staff, residents, visitors — amicably weave around each other in the hallways, while a maze of stairways and basement passages, circling around boilers, kitchen equipment, and stockpiled provisions, would confound the uninitiated.
But there’s no sense of disorder from this busy array; rather, the accumulated “stuff” reveals the Brookside Nursing Home to be just that — a home — where Upper Valley residents have lived, worked, and been cared for for generations.
“I am a second-generation administrator,” says Tom Rice, 61. Rice, his brother, Stephen (assistant administrator), and their sister, Susan Rice Ranney, share ownership. Brookside is a skilled- and intermediate-care facility with a 67-bed capacity. The family also owns the 73-bed Green Mountain Nursing Home far to the west at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, purchased in 2000. In 1986, they built an 80-bed skilled-nursing home facility in Bradford, but later sold it to a private investor for use as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
At Brookside, Rice’s office is on the second floor of the original wing of the nursing home — which isn’t really a wing at all, but the house — refashioned repeatedly over the decades — where Rice and his siblings, Steve and Susan, grew up.
“My parents started all this in 1963,” he explains. “We were those 1950s farmers who had the interstate [I-91] go right through the middle of our farm. We came here until we could find another home.”
“Here” was a white frame house owned by the prosperous Stonecrest Farm, which had originally housed its laborers. Once ensconced on Christian Road, however, the family’s plans changed. There was a barn on the property, which enabled the children’s father, Stanley Rice, to keep his Angus cattle and other livestock, but Stanley also had a trucking business and a night job on the railroad. His wife, Cathleen, enrolled at the Hanover-Hitchcock School of Practical Nursing, an auspicious decision for the Rice family.
“She was then in her 50s,” says daughter Susan Rice Ranney with pride, “but she was at the top of her class.”
Cathleen then took nursing positions in the area, until, according to Susan, she was inspired to start her own business — right in the family’s home. It began with one resident, and grew to four, forcing a shuffling of the children’s bedrooms. Eventually the family moved to another home nearby, enabling Cathleen to expand the number of beds to 16.
“We had daily duties,” Tom remembers. “I’m the administrator now, but I have changed as many diapers as anyone else, cooked breakfast, shoveled coal in the furnace … the staff doesn’t often say to me, ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’”
There’s lots of history wrapped up in Brookside Nursing Home, where wings added in 1964, 1974, and 1978 brought the capacity to the present 67. And it’s not just family history.
“As kids we heard stories from the old folks that were amazing,” says Rice. “People seeing their fathers come home from the Civil War with their guns over their shoulders; we had a woman who was well over 100 years old who was on the Oregon Trail out West.”
Rice explains that the nursing home industry developed as part of a crucial chapter in America’s cultural history. “Our business basically was created out of the Depression era and World War II, when women went to work or into the services. For those families that had historically lived together generation after generation after generation, that pattern was broken by the women coming to the aid of the men to provide war materiel.”
With their newfound skills, women became part of their communities’ economies in other ways than as consumers, says Rice; but for the first time, they weren’t available to take care of aging family members. “So a tradeoff was made, and group housing, nursing homes, and extended-care facilities all became part of our way of life.”
The story didn’t end there. Advancements in medical technology extended people’s lives, so hospitals became overcrowded. Thus, the provision of medical services has sifted into what the industry calls a “continuum of care,” and the Brookside and Green Mountain nursing homes are in the middle of it.
“Today’s nursing homes have become sub-acute hospitals,” Rice explains. Ventilators, cardiovascular support — even X-rays — have transformed nursing homes into facilities that resemble Vermont’s small community hospitals of earlier times. “The only difference,” Rice says, “is the lack of an operating room. And like those community hospitals, our goal is to get everybody back home. If that’s not realistic we try to make it as close to home here as we can.”
Brookside has been Rice’s professional home for 43 years. After high school he served in the Army (1968–1973), and around the same time married Daphne Cattabriga from Lebanon, N.H. After his discharge Rice knew his parents weren’t ready to retire, nor was he convinced he wanted to be a nursing home administrator. So he became an electrical contractor for 14 years.
In time, though, there came a changing of the guard, and Rice earned a license to practice through the Catholic Hospitals Nursing Home Study Program. That was supplemented by business courses he had taken at Castleton College In addition to his duties at Brookside, his career has included serving as president of the Vermont Health Care Association, and, in that capacity, testifying on the behalf of the industry to Congress.
Rice confesses he is extremely concerned about costs in the health care industry. The technology that provides Americans extended and more comfortable lives — which they have grown to expect — is expensive. Brookside employs between 85 and 100 people (“We’re 24 hours a day,” he points out), and they are professionals. “We aren’t paying RNs a dollar and a quarter, or LPNs 80 cents an hour. Those days are long gone.”
A financial reckoning is looming, Rice fears, as Americans reject the notion of tax increases but demand services that cost providers a great deal of money. “I don’t see anybody making the decisions that will resolve this,” he says. “It makes me afraid for all of us.”
Despite that sobering assessment, Rice and his brother, the assistant administrator, push on with a family enterprise that fits well into its community.
“Tom is someone who’s done a lot of good things for people,” says Allen Hall, who, with his brother Charlie, owns Gateway Motors in White River Junction. The Halls have known Rice since childhood.
“He takes his business seriously,” says Hall. “He has good systems in place and good controls, and he’s interested in the best service for his patients and the best outcome in his operations. He’s a very accountable person, very much a man of his word.”
Those qualities, no doubt, derive in part from Rice’s decades-long involvement with the Boy Scouts, for it wasn’t all work for the Rice children in their nursing home–oriented youth.
“We were typical teenagers,” says Susan, still a co-owner but not intimately involved. “I’ve been riding and raising horses since I was about 14.”
After working as a nurse’s aide and assisting her aunt, longtime Brookside cook Francis Porter — their mother’s sister— Susan embarked on a 36-year career at General Electric in Rutland. She retired on her 60th birthday, in January. She and her twin daughters have raised several state champion quarter horses.
Steve, 58, loved music and excelled at the guitar, performing with bands around Burlington (an old acoustic leans against the bookshelves in his office). He also became a certified optician, working for Bausch & Lomb and other companies in Vermont and New Hampshire before rejoining his brother in the family trade. Steve — whose father-in-law was a Brookside resident — keeps optical tools behind his desk, and sometimes roams the hallways repairing people’s glasses.
“I enjoy it, and it makes them happy,” he says.
Rice’s hobby was the Boy Scouts of America. An alumnus of the many levels of Scouting, after returning from the service he went into the adult ranks as a scout leader and an instructor in Wood Badge — “the college of Scouting,” as he calls it. He has served on the board of directors, and as vice president for program advancement, for the Green Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
“I love the outdoors and nature,” he explains, “but Boy Scouting isn’t truly a recreational program; it’s a teaching program. We use the outdoors for training in leadership. The qualities expressed in the Scouts’ Oath, I think, are those which made America strong.”
The Brookside Nursing Home, with the Rice Family at its helm, has seen a lot of change in American society and culture over the years, and has been a part of the community’s adaptation to those changes. But the qualities Tom Rice reveres in the Scouting tradition are ones he is trying to extend into an unknown future, when he believes they may be more important than ever. •