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The Guinness World Records website lists Viola Cocran of Slidell, Lousiana as the record holder for most volunteer hours worked. Cocran, according to the website, put in 77,019 hours at the Slidell Memorial Hospital between 1959 and 2012, when she retired at age 89.
Not to take anything away from Mrs. Cocran’s selfless efforts, but it’s clear the Guinness people have never heard of Lillian Embick.
By conservative estimates, between 1971 and 2014, Embick logged more than 100,000 hours as founder and volunteer executive director of Audiences Unlimited Inc., the organization she created to bring the arts to people in nursing homes, people otherwise cut off from society and languishing in cold institutions.
Of course, the folks at Guinness might have a tough time verifying the time Embick spent working without a paycheck because during the 43 years she ran Audiences Unlimited she was the only one in the office.
She was the one at her kitchen table at 2 am pounding out grant proposals on her portable typewriter.
It was Embick who contacted hundreds of local musicians and got them to take their talents to nursing homes for $25 an hour. It was Embick who convinced the Philharmonic, local theater groups and event sponsors to donate tickets and allow bus loads of shut-ins to attend live performances. And it was Embick who talked heads of corporations and wealthy citizens into providing the funds to help bring some 3,000 performances and access to the arts to nearly 3 million isolated people for whom such privileges had been removed.
To be sure, her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Embick has won many state and national awards for her work including Indiana’s highest honor, the Sagamore of the Wabash. You can now add the H. Stanley Liddell Award, her 28th, presented for her at a whatzup-hosted luncheon for prior award recipients at Fort Wayne’s One Lucky Guitar on Friday, December 2.
But Embick didn’t start her work to earn recognition. She started it to bring a slice of joy to as many people as possible.
In was on a Sunday morning in the mid-1960s that Lillian Embick found her calling. She was sitting at her kitchen table with her husband reading the Parade Magazine section of the paper when she came across a story that changed her life and eventually the lives of millions.
The story was about a man in New York City whose company brought music to people in nursing homes and hospitals. As she read, Embick’s heart began to beat faster.
Already a volunteer with the Red Cross, Embick had spent the previous decade with others who would load up a van with Kool-Aid and potato chips she had talked the Seyfert’s potato chip company into donating and head to one of the five nursing homes in Fort Wayne. There Embick would play the piano and lead sing-alongs for the residents. While she enjoyed the work with the Red Cross, she wanted to do more.
“I wanted to become a non-profit,” she said. “I told God if he would give me a program, I would take no salary and work 60 hours a week if I had to. I was sitting right where you are sitting, and I opened the paper and saw a story titled ‘I Feel Like a Human Being Again.’ I couldn’t wait until Monday to call the people at Parade.
The next day she called New York, got the phone number for Michael Jon Spencer, the man in the story, and called him. That call led Lillian to begin working locally for Spencer and his organization, Hospital Audiences Inc.
But after four years, Hospital Audiences decided they wanted 10 percent of the donations she received, she said, so she decided to head off on her own. Now, some 45 years later, Audiences Unlimited is a local institution bringing nearly 3,000 programs annually to 49 hospitals and nursing homes across northeast Indiana. Lillian estimates that since she started Audiences Unlimited in 1971, the program has brought music and the arts to about 2.8 million people.
Meeting Lillian Embick now it’s hard to imagine that this tiny, impeccably dressed, white-haired nonagenarian with a still-sharp mind was ever anything but smiles and joy and generosity. But her warmth and enthusiasm didn’t come naturally to her. For the first decades of her life, she endured a Dickensian river of abandonment and hardship. The loneliness and sadness she experienced planted a seed of hope deep within her – but it was a seed that would take years to sprout.
“My father left my mother when I was a baby,” she said. “They had built a house and had a big mortgage on it, and he left her with that mortgage and a pile of debts. My grandmother was supposed to take care of me, but she died of cancer. And there’s my poor mother now, a little lady about the size of me, with a house and a mortgage and a baby.”
After a few years of caring for old people in their homes, with Lillian in tow, her mother saw no option but to place her toddler in foster homes.
“I cried for my mother night and day, so nobody wanted me,” Embick said.
Her mother then placed her in an orphanage. The tears continued.
But her mother had a plan. She rented the house fully furnished and went to work for 50 cents an hour cleaning houses. She only took two days off a month. And on those two days, she visited Lillian.
“She planned to take me back and move back into the house when I was six years old so I could go to school. It was a really difficult decision. She would visit me, and when she left I would scream. They had to tear me off of her.”
Packed into a tiny cottage with 26 other children, they cried every night, she said. Every so often a church group or the Girl or Boy Scouts would appear and take the children to the circus or on some other outing.
“We would all stand there at the door waiting for somebody to come, and they would bring us a cookie or a bag of candy,” she said. “I realized how lonesome it was and how the programs and the few outings we had made such a difference in my life.”
Her mother’s plan worked. After moving back into their home, Lillian’s mother bought a piano for $25 and found someone to give Lillian lessons in exchange for doing laundry, ironing and mending. But the hardships were far from over. Lillian and her mother, a German immigrant, were poor and sometimes hungry.
In time, Lillian graduated high school, got married and had a daughter. But like her mother’s marriage, Lillian’s ended in abandonment. She struggled as a single mother. Then she met her future husband.
Byron Embick was a Philadelphia native who wound up in Fort Wayne as a manager-in-training for General Electric during World War II. As it happened, he and Lillian were both singing in an ensemble that performed at Franke Park. He had a beautiful singing voice, she said. One day on the way to rehearsal Lillian passed him as he walked to the park.
“I saw him walking down Sherman Street a couple of nights,” she said. “I knew he was in the group, so I offered to pick him up at the corner of Creighton and Broadway. He had a room nearby and walked to rehearsals from there.”
Pretty soon they started stopping at Gardner’s on Jefferson Street for hamburgers after rehearsals. When Byron was transferred to Erie, Pennsylvania, he would drive back to Fort Wayne to visit Lillian. Then he got transferred again, this time to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. That’s when they decided to get married.
“He was married previously and so was I,” she said. “So we moved to Massachusetts. But I was homesick. I missed my mother.”
Rather than accept yet another transfer, Byron worked it out so they could move back to Fort Wayne.
“Byron liked it here,” Lillian said. “He said in a big city you can only be a spectator. But in a city the size of Fort Wayne you can be a participant.”
Upon their return to Fort Wayne, they immediately became participants, Byron in plays and musicals with the Civic Theater and Lillian with the Red Cross. They found a home across the street from Lakeside Park and settled in. Lillian still lives there today.
“Everybody said I should write a book,” she said. “They can’t get over how I turned out. Because I was angry and bitter and had a bad temper, and I would tell you off in no time flat what I thought about you. But I had a lot of good counseling, and it helps. It takes your mind off your own problems. They said, think of what your mother could have done. She could have adopted you out. What would you have done as a single mother with a huge mortgage and debts and nobody to take care of your child? Would you have done any better? In her own way, I knew she loved me, but she was hurting herself so much.”
In all, Embick spent 55 years donating her time and talents to the less fortunate, the sick and the forgotten. In 2014 she passed the torch of Audiences Unlimited, Inc., to three paid employees, the first in the organization’s history.
Anna Ross is executive director, Ayesha Squires is administrative program coordinator and Suzanne Rhee is administrative assistant.
But Embick still spends most of her time attending events and visiting with the people she served.
“I left Audiences Unlimited about two years ago with a million dollar endowment. I’m very very proud of that,” she said. “After 45 years I’m as excited about it now as I was when I started it.”
Guinness or not, Lillian Embick is one for the record books.