PAOLA — A lot has changed since a photograph was snapped 50 years ago of Rick Obermeier walking into Lakemary Center for his first day of school.
The faded color of the photo, the outfits, the hairstyles and the vintage blue station wagon in the background are all signs of a different era.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the big, bright smile on Obermeier’s face.
“He radiates pure joy and happiness,” said Kirk Davis, Lakemary vice president of adult services.
Lakemary Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Obermeier is one of the few people who have been there since the beginning.
Ever since the school for children with developmental disabilities opened in 1969, Obermeier has been a part of the institution, and he now has become one of the primary faces of the organization and a walking success story.
After moving through classes at the school, Obermeier took advantage of the adult services that Lakemary started in the early 1980s. He eventually moved into one of Lakemary’s first group homes and started working at Tri-Ko in 1987.
It’s a job he still holds today, more than 30 years later, and he’s still a common face inside Lakemary Center, as his group home is just a short walk from the Paola campus.
Davis said Obermeier is always asking how people are doing, and he genuinely cares about their responses.
“I like being a friend here at Lakemary because Lakemary’s been nice to me a lot,” Obermeier said in a video celebrating Lakemary’s 50th anniversary.
Davis said he met Obermeier in the spring of 1983, and the two have grown close over the years.
“He’s one of my best friends,” Davis said during a recent interview with Obermeier sitting next to him.
“Is it time to close your blinds?” Obermeier replied.
Davis just smiled.
“That’s a funny story,” he said. “Rick used to be able to look out the window of his group home and see right into my office at Lakemary. I would often work late, and the last thing I would do is close the blinds. So some nights I would get a call from Rick, asking me if it’s time to close the blinds.”
Obermeier feels right at home inside his group home, where he’s surrounded by the things he loves — especially trains. His room is filled with train memorabilia, including hats he received from his uncle who worked as a train inspector.
There’s also a CD player that Obermeier uses to listen to some of his favorite musical artists, such as Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. He even broke out into song during his recent interview with Davis, reciting the chorus to “The Gambler.”
“He travels at the speed of life,” Davis said. “He lives in the moment 100 percent. He never feels rushed.”
Obermeier has left a lasting legacy at Lakemary in a number of ways, including the creation of the annual family picnic. Davis said Obermeier first proposed the idea, and he asked to say grace before the first meal.
“He has said that prayer for 35 years in a row,” Davis said. “All of us at Lakemary have been blessed to have been able to share this journey with him.”