As Mary Ellen DeLaney heads into retirement at the end of April after 32 years as the Bexley Recreation and Parks Department's senior-citizen-activities coordinator, she said she will miss the people who have become like family.
"It's such a close-knit community, with neighbors helping neighbors and friends helping friends," she said.
A Circleville native, DeLaney moved to the Columbus area in 1970 to attend Ohio State University and received a bachelor's degree in education. While working as a preschool teacher in 1988, she came across the job listing for Bexley's senior-citizen activities coordinator and thought she'd be a good fit – even though she had no previous experience working with older adults.
DeLaney said she believes her enthusiasm for being around people of all ages helped her land the job.
"I figured if I liked being around children, I'd love being around older adults," she said.
In the past three decades, DeLaney has organized a variety of events that help older adults stay active and socially engaged, from hot-air balloon rides to whitewater rafting to ziplining.
One of the most popular events was an annual go-kart race that Bexley participated in for more than a decade with all of the city of Columbus recreation centers until the Malibu Grand Prix track in north Columbus closed in 2001.
"We had all the mayors and all the older adults racing each other," DeLaney said.
Domestic and international travel has long been a staple of Bexley's senior-citizen program, DeLaney said, and she fondly recalls cross-country excursions as well as trips abroad to countries like Ireland and Italy.
Since she hadn't traveled extensively before she started the job, she said she was able to reassure older adults who were leery of venturing outside of their comfort zones.
"I'd say, 'I promise you this group is so friendly and you will not be alone'," she said.
To generate ideas, DeLaney said she worked with officers of the Bexley Activities Club, which assists the recreation department in planning senior-citizen activities, and she collaborated with directors of other central Ohio senior centers.
"We'd meet once a month and pass around ideas," she said.
Marilyn Noll, a 52-year Bexley resident who has held several leadership positions with the activities club, said DeLaney has a knack for organizing activities that appeal to people with different interests and that can be enjoyed regardless of gender.
"Even now, there are shopping trips that men go on and they really enjoy themselves," said Noll, who recalls participating in many activities with her late husband, Carl. "She made it fun for everybody."
DeLaney went out of her way to take a personal interest in the club members, Noll said.
"When people get sick, she's at their door to check on them," Noll said. "When people have died, I've gone to funeral homes with her. She's there for the families. She's in every aspect of people's lives."
Bexley Recreation Director Michael Price said finding a replacement for DeLaney was a major undertaking.
"She really brought senior programming to where it is today and has been an integral part of so many of residents' lives," Price said. "She has been a one-person show in terms of providing that service."
Price said he and a three-person search committee chose Kristen Schweitzer, formerly with the Ohio Department of Aging, from a pool of 15 applicants as the new coordinator. She is scheduled to start April 27.
DeLaney's contributions will long be felt in the recreation department and the broader community, Price said.
"Her personality's perfect for the job. She's a saint – and I don't use that term lightly – in terms of the work she does and the compassion that she has," he said.
"She's been doing that for so long and she's been so successful at doing it, those are big shoes to fill."
In retirement, DeLaney, a Groveport resident, said she looks forward to spending more time with her husband, Marion, and their three adult children, Jenny, Richie and Angie. While senior-citizen activities planned for the last several weeks of DeLaney's tenure in March and April had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, she said she has many years of memories to reflect upon.
"It was a feel-good time," she said. "You were having a good time while learning a lot and helping others."