For more than 16 years, the Lawton Fort Sill Veterans Center was Dorma Mortel’s home away from home.
Having been one of the first hires when the center was opened in 2003, she had been a mainstay from the day the doors opened.
But with the center closed to people over the age of 65 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 89-year-old Mortel had been unable to go into work for the past two months. She wasn’t even able to pack up and retrieve her personal belongings from the building.
So when she decided to finally (and reluctantly) retire, a retirement party at the center was out of the question.
So her former coworkers brought the party to her.
On Thursday, eight employees from the Veterans Affairs (VA) Center, most of them on one of the center’s buses, surprised Mortel at her home, presenting her with balloons, signs, flowers, an American flag in a display case and most of all, a feeling of normalcy and warmth. With her daughter and granddaughter present as well, Mortel received what she humbly called a “very nice surprise.”
“I was very surprised,” Mortel said. “It’s just so good to see everyone.”
Mortel actually began working for the VA Center before it even was open to the public. She had already begun volunteering while the building was still under construction. During that time, she was asked if she would be interested in a job as a receptionist. She was hired in November and quickly became a fixture at the front desk. In addition to welcoming guests and providing information, she delivered mail around the center and walked several miles each day.
Along the way, she made friends with the guests, residents and other employees and volunteers at the center. They became her second family, and the center was her second home.
“I made some very good friends who will always be my friends,” Mortel said. “I truly loved my job. I never, ever woke up and dreaded going to work, I loved getting to work there.”
The retirement party also served as a miniature reunion as well, given that Mortel had not seen her friends from work in two months. Even with the presence of face masks and everyone keeping safe distance from one another, it still felt like old times.
“I knew she would have fun with this,” Mortel’s daughter, Janice Wilson, said.
Tonya Hendricks, the assistant administrator for the veterans center, said Mortel was one of the most recognizable and most well-liked figures at the center. From residents to fellow employees, nearly everyone who stepped through the center’s doors knew Dorma.
“She always greeted our veterans,” Hendricks said. “And she always had the best stories. We would even tell her, ‘We can always count on you for great stories.’”
While Dorma says her interactions with her coworkers and the public are what she’ll miss the most, her family joked there might be something else from the center that she yearns for even more.
“She misses the desserts,” granddaughter Lacy Bonham said. “She said she’s lost weight during quarantine and I tell her it’s because she’s not eating all the sweets at the VA Center she used to get.”
Luckily for Dorma, among the slew of gifts given to her by her coworkers were a chocolate cake and a box of apple fritter doughnuts, one of her favorites.
Because after 16-plus years at a job, who knows you better than your coworkers?