STERLING – Kathy Fischer thought her boyfriend, Steve Zuidema, took the day off work to go to his dentist in Rockford.
That’s what he said, but he was fibbing.
It was part of his elaborate story to get her to visit the nonprofit Northern Illinois Center for Independent Living. NICIL serves people with disabilities in Lee, Ogle, Whiteside, Carroll and Jo Daviess counties, and Fischer recently left there after 23 years, 15 as executive director.
Fischer had told her colleagues she wanted nothing special for her departure, so Zuidema had to come up with a way to get her to the Sterling office without her knowing she was walking into her surprise party.
So, on their way to the dentist, Zuidema insisted they stop at NICIL so she could pick up some items that she had left behind.
She hesitated, but agreed.
When they walked in, about 30 people, including Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton, surprised her. NICIL recently moved its office to Sterling from Rock Falls.
“Oh, my gosh!” she said, jokingly chiding the crowd, “That was not good at all.”
She looked down at what she was wearing. Then she shook well-wishers’ hands.
If she had known she would be walking into her surprise party, she would have put on makeup and dressed up, said Fischer, who was wearing jeans, a pink sweater and a white jacket.
Fischer told the crowd that during her years in charge, she tried to stay in the background, crediting the staff for the agency’s success.
“I started humble, and I want to leave humble,” she said. “I want to thank you for showing appreciation.”
To one of NICIL’s deaf clients, Fischer apologized that a sign language interpreter wasn’t around.
“We love you,” another client said.
“I love you, too,” Fischer responded, wiping back tears.
Candace Hazelhurst, one of the clients, said she started living independently after Fischer joined NICIL.
“People were saying that I couldn’t live independently,” Hazelhurst said. “I’ve done it now for 23 years.”
Before that, she was at Winning Wheels nursing home in Prophetstown.
“They [NICIL] taught me how to live independently,” Hazelhurst said.
NICIL employee Carla Phillips said Fischer warned against any hoopla surrounding her retirement.
“She deserves it,” Phillips said. “She’s been a big part of the community.”