Harmar retiree fights depression with new hobby

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

The steady hum of windmill blades slicing air surrounded Milton Friesel in his Harmar backyard.

Friesel stood amid the fruits of his latest hobby: building weather vanes. On this day, 28 of them churned in the gusty wind. Made from scrap — plastic bottles, plastic siding, even coffee cans cut in half — they stand on posts driven into the lawn, hang from trees and adorn metal poles that anchor his deck overlooking the Allegheny River.

“Twenty-eight? Holy Christ, and I got three more in the shanty,” Friesel said, opening the door of a small shed. Inside his workshop attached to the back of his small house, eight weather vanes sit in various states of construction.

Friesel, 90, ran a hand through his white hair as he surveyed them. His hair stuck straight up, giving him the appearance of a mad scientist.

“The secret to a long life is keeping busy,” he said. “I feel sorry for people who retire and don't have a hobby. My trouble is, I have too many hobbies.”

This latest hobby came as a gift from his nephew, and it rescued Friesel from a temporary bout of sadness.

A few years ago, Albert Hodill said, his uncle realized that all of his friends were dead. His last friend, Ray, a collector of antiques, died when a piano fell on him, Hodill said. Friesel's wife died in the 1970s, and his longtime girlfriend died last year. Friesel had doted on her, taking her out to dinner three nights a week, every week, for years.

“I lost 40 pounds after she died,” Friesel said. “Holy cow, I stopped eating.”

He stopped doing much of anything, Hodill said.

Friesel, a retired technician who installed phone systems for Western Electric, once spent his days talking on ham radios or buying old computers and electronics at flea markets. He'd take them apart, see how they worked and put them back together.

Then he lost interest.

“He just stayed home all the time,” Hodill said. “I'd come over and he'd be lying on the couch. I said, ‘Unc, what are you doing lying down in the middle of the day?' He just said it was the most comfortable place in the house.

“The family talked about it,” Hodill said. “Everybody's busy nowadays. I just happened to have some time.”

Hodill lives nearby in Verona and is retired. He started showing up on Tuesdays and Thursdays to spend hours with his uncle. One day, he brought a bag of empty juice bottles.

“I said, ‘Hey, Unc, let's see if we can make a weather vane out of these,' ” Hodill recalled. “We started cutting them up into little windmills. My main idea was to get him interested in something. But he really took off with it.”

Hodill's actions produced exactly what his uncle needed, said Lisa Powell, admissions coordinator for Personal Care at Asbury Heights senior facility in Mt. Lebanon.

As friends die, children move away and relatives' busy schedules keep them from visiting, seniors can become isolated and bored, she said. Depression can settle in, particularly during the holidays, she said.

“You get all those memories from past holidays,” Powell said. “If my husband is no longer around and my kids have moved away, yeah, I'm going to get depressed.”

Signs that something is wrong take many forms, she said. Seniors might stop cleaning the house or themselves, stop eating and let food spoil, make mistakes with medication. They can lose weight and suffer mood swings.

Such warnings could signal serious health problems that require professional help, she said.

Or, as in Friesel's case, it could simply be a case of boredom, easily remedied by a loving nephew.

“We have a good time together,” Hodill said. “We stare at each other for a while, watch the windmills, then start a new project.”

Their latest project is building hot-air engines. Last week, they spent hours in Friesel's workshop trying to perfect plans that include empty beer cans, tin plates, plastic tubing, a balloon and a candle.

Like old friends, they playfully complained about each other while moving around the workshop.

Hodill: “He's being really bossy today.”

Friesel: “Oh, all I've got to do is open my mouth and he says I'm hollering at him.”

Friesel sat in a chair and took a deep breath. “I've been running back and forth too much. I'm getting out of breath.”

Hodill looked over, a soldering wand in his hand. “You know, you're supposed to be doing this, not me.”

Friesel smiled and patted his knee.

They couldn't get the engine to work but vowed to keep trying.

“I'll leave and he'll keep working on it, and eventually he'll figure it out and get it to work,” Hodill said.

Friesel pointed to scraps left from their project. “You see that mess he made? He'll leave and I'll have to clean it all up.”

They laughed, then turned back to their task of figuring out how to make their engine run.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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