Grace: Champion of poor hits hard times, but he's not complaining -
Published Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:10 am
Grace: Champion of poor hits hard times, but he's not complaining

Rich Koeppen calls.

“Were we supposed to meet today?” he asks, worried he stood me up.

No, I tell him.

It's the dementia, the 70-year-old says in disgust.

The dementia is the latest in a series of blows that have put one of Omaha's champions for the poor right into the shoes of the people he has spent decades serving.

Since leaving homeless-shelter work in 2007, Rich has cycled through jobs and health problems that have nearly caused him to be homeless himself. He has suffered ministrokes, battled colitis and is slated for knee surgery soon. The bigger threat is an aggressive form of dementia.

This means Rich, once great with names, forgets them. That he sometimes drives aimlessly, forgetting his destination. That he stands inside Bag 'N Save wondering what on earth he needed.

This strikes me as karmic injustice. He corrects me: “I'm the luckiest person you know.”

Rich went to Creighton University. Then he served in the U.S. Army Reserve, volunteering during the Vietnam War but not getting sent overseas.

In the late 1970s Rich started marketing insurance for Hartford Life in Omaha and then in Chicago for International Telephone & Telegraph.

Rich got rich. And lived large: three offices, two cars, maid service three times a week in his suburban condo. A gin rummy player, he carried more than $5,000 in cash for card games at his suburban Chicago country club. He took dates on the red-eye to Las Vegas and in limo rides to the Twin Cities.

Rich eventually broke off from ITT and started his own brokerage marketing business in Chicago.

But then his folks in Omaha both got cancer. Single all his life — he was engaged three times, but it never stuck — Rich figured he was the freest of his siblings to be a caregiver.

So he sold his business to a broker, who paid him a portion of the earnings each year. Rich moved in with his parents and cared for them for 3 years.

After they died in 1984, he took a job for $25 a month.

The work was a bit of penance for the lavish Chicago life. It was also the continuation of volunteer work he had done while living in Naperville, Ill. Rich had been doorkeeper at a Naperville shelter. He had liked working with the needy. So he had called Siena-Francis House in Omaha and asked if they needed help. They did.

“I didn't negotiate the money,” Rich joked about his low pay.

Rich went on to open a men's shelter called Anthony House in a duplex at 16th and Locust Streets, which he ran for 11 years.

He set up job-training programs for the “guests,” as he called the homeless men, in painting, handyman and janitorial work.

After Anthony House closed in 1996, Rich took over another shelter, the Vincent House at 17th and Webster Streets.

Rich had taken his Chicago earnings and sunk them into Anthony House. He gave away much of his salary at Vincent House, which he later renamed the McAuley Center for Women and Families.

Rich had kept both shelters afloat as long as he could with the same affable, quick-witted qualities that had served him in Chicago business circles. When money ran short, as it always seemed to, he put in his own cash.

He also served on a communitywide homeless agency board, advocating for the poor.

He advocated so much, it hurt him. He was pushy. He didn't like to be controlled. He and the shelter's board broke away from the shelter's affiliated agency, the St. Vincent De Paul Society, which coordinates help for the poor through a number of Catholic parishes.

Rich lost some longtime support because of his approach. Then there were the forces beyond his control: geography (the shelter lay right in the path of Creighton University expansion); money (always a struggle for homeless agencies); health (after a hip replacement in 2005, Rich had a major stroke and was out of commission for six months).

He lost his shelter job in 2007 and bounced from one low-paying human services job to another. The Chicago brokerage money was long gone, and Rich had no savings. He had to ask friends for money and other help.

The latest blow came 1 years ago, when Rich's mind was blanking so much, he finally sought medical help.

He had gone to a vacuum repair shop with no clue what he intended to do there. He was supposed to pick up someone at Eppley Airfield but couldn't remember how to get there.

“It was a terrifying experience,” he said, “to be doing something and forgetting why you're doing what you're doing.”

Things get him down now more than they used to. And though he is still the same irrepressibly righteous, funny and sharp person I met a decade ago, his mind blanks when he talks with me.

Who's that guy who runs Berkshire Hathaway? And what's that thing with wheels he'll need after his knee surgery?

Given what he knew from the insurance business, given everything shelter work would have taught about the thin line between having and not having, why didn't he prepare? Where was his safety net?

“I never worried about it,” he said. “I've been embarrassed and ashamed of myself because I've spent the past six years being a beggar. I could have very easily put a substantial amount of money away.”

But he didn't. Why hold onto something that someone else needs?

“I hate saying that, because it makes me sound like a saint,” Rich said. “And I'm not.”

He just feels guilty for having so much when others have so little.

“I don't know,” he said, “how to stop feeling guilty about that.”

Guilt has been a long-standing feeling. Here's a new one: terror.

Rich was in the grocery store recently. He was standing there for a good 10 to 12 minutes racking his brain. Why was he here?

“I should have written a note,” Rich said.

He tries not to dwell on this.

Rich tries instead to focus on his luck.

He was fortunate to serve his parents in their time of need, he said. Fortunate to serve the homeless in theirs.

“I think I've been very lucky,” he said. “And for some reason, I believe the luck will continue.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1136,

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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