Resident’s caricatures of residents and staff forge bonds at Rockville retirement home


Jim Macdonell at the drawing table in his apartment. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Every Friday, residents and staff at Ingleside at King Farm wonder who the next victim will be. Grabbing the latest copy of the Ingleside Insider, the retirement community’s weekly newsletter, they flip through the pages until they find a hand-drawn caricature and short biography of one of the people who eat, play bridge or work alongside them.

One week it was longtime Washington radio personality Ed Walker, whose iconic voice is familiar to many residents who might not also know that he was American University’s first blind student. Or they may not know that Swiss-born Hans Wyss, a retired World Bank economist, owns that snazzy orange Corvette parked in the garage. Or that Victoria Bakly, Ingleside’s cheerful director of nursing, spent part of her childhood in a Cambodian detention camp under the Khmer Rouge.

The biographies, and the ink-and-pastel color portraits that accompany them, are the work of Jim Macdonell, 81, a retired Presbyterian minister and civil rights activist who has lived at the facility in Rockville, Md., since it opened in 2009.

A 1952 graduate of the American Academy of Art in Chicago, ­Macdonell had always sketched and drawn the places he traveled to and the people he met.

About two years ago, he turned his attention to the 375 residents and 225 staff members at Ingleside. The facility has published a binder of the 88 portraits he has made, with room for more. The $25 price goes to an employee appreciation fund; 125 have sold.

Inside his spacious third-floor apartment, Macdonell sat sketching at his desk. Beside him lay a stack of CDs (Frank Sinatra, Charlie Byrd); above him hung framed drawings of places he and his wife of 37 years have visited (Paris, Warsaw, Seville).

Since starting the newsletter sketches, Macdonell said he has been struck by the rich back stories of his neighbors.

“We have State Department people, we have IMF people . . . we have guys who’ve been ambassadors, who have worked around the world, and you wouldn’t know some of these things unless I tell the stories of these folks,” he said. Many staff members, too, have colorful or harrowing personal stories, such as Bakly or a Ugandan night manager who saw “horrible stuff” as a kid.

Macdonell’s own past was not boring. Founder and pastor for 38 years of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, he marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., was picked up by police during a voter registration drive in Canton, Miss., and spent time in Northern Ireland when tensions roiled between Protestants and Catholics. Throughout troubled times, he was always sketching. (One of his cartoons, of a segregationist Maryland gubernatorial candidate, ran in The Washington Post in 1966.)

“People put up with funny pictures sometimes when you’re coming across really strong with your liberal politics — it’s an icebreaker,” he said.

That impulse continues. When residents Ed Wilhelm and Frank Senger got married last year after 50 years together, Macdonell celebrated the event with a joint sketch and profile in the news­letter.

“I was surprised at how well this was accepted,” he said, adding that some at Ingleside may not have had much exposure to gay marriage. “The whole community turned out, staff and residents.”

The sketches have made Macdonell instantly recognizable at Ingleside. Residents in the atrium last week — including several who had already been captured by his pen — said being drawn by Macdonell was a sort of community rite of passage.

Just as some people immediately turn to their newspaper’s sports or business section, Ingleside people go first to the Personalities page, said Bill King, 85, a retired engineer who was the first to be featured in the news­letter. “Every week we wait to see what Jim did to our friend — was he kind?”

Most are happy with the results. “He gets down into who we are,” said Barbara Harris, 78, a retired music teacher and school counselor.

“Nothing’s sacred,” Macdonell said with a grin.

Marilyn Leist, Ingleside’s executive director, said the caricatures and profiles often spark dinner conversation among residents and give them a more personal connection to the staff.

“Whether people like them or not, they look at them,” Leist said. “We’ve had some really good laughs, because there are some of us who would sooner not have a caricature of ourselves.” Only two or three people have refused to be drawn.

Larry Garufi, a longtime Foreign Service member who had postings around the world, said that learning about staff members’ national origins has helped him connect to them. “There’s several of us who’ve served in their countries — Sierra Leone, Ghana . . . and now when we see them we can say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to know about you.’ ”

Macdonell said his plan is to draw everybody at Ingleside who will let him, which should give him several more years of work.

“The question is,” Walker said, “who’s going to do Jim?”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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