Those of us lucky enough to have long-standing, even lifelong, friendship, know that the benefits far exceed merely keeping one another company. Such relationships are about growing, changing and learning together.
One such pair of lifelong friends is James McKune and Sue Walker of Hammer Residences in Wayzata, where McKune lives and Walker serves on staff. The two met when Walker got a job at Hammer in 1977—which means they’ve been friends for nearly 40 years.
Hammer Residences offer people with developmental disabilities supportive, customized residential care and has from its beginning been committed to providing an affirmative, loving environment for the individuals it serves. Earlier this year, it produced a video series, “Hammer Conversations,” to share stories like Walker and McKune’s with the local community. According to Tony Baisley, Hammer’s director of communications, sharing these stories is essential to raising awareness of developmental disabilities. “Sometimes a simple conversation is where it all starts,” notes Baisley. “There is something intimate about listening to someone’s heart-to-heart conversation, be it between family members, or close friends.”
James McKune arrived at Hammer by way of Illinois as an 11-year-old in 1948. Then, Hammer consisted of a single large farmhouse, and McKune lived there with about 15 other residents. Though McKune remained in touch with an aunt, uncle and cousin after leaving Illinois, his ties with his family weren’t strong, and communication was infrequent.
Sue Walker was introduced to Hammer Residences in 1977 when she got her first job after graduating from college with a degree in social work. “Hammer was ahead of its time,” says Walker, now a program director at the organization. “At that time, it was very unusual for disabled individuals to live in a community like that.”
McKune was 40 years old when he and Walker met. “You already had some gray hair by the time I met you,” she says to McKune, prompting a smile from him. Walker says McKune introduced himself on the first day she came to Hammer. “You wrote my name down in your notebook,” she recalls fondly. That introduction was the start of an enduring friendship.
Walker worked as a direct support professional in the group home where McKune lived. This involved helping residents with everyday activities such as cooking, exercising and running errands. Walker became an essential part of McKune’s daily life at Hammer.
The pair formed a strong friendship over the decades Walker working at Hammer. After several years there, Walker changed positions, and got married and started a family. Her friendship with McKune remained, however, and the two visited one another frequently. “James has come to be like part of my family over the years,” Walker says. “He would come to family occasions, spend time with my kids. They grew up having James around.”
In 1996, Walker became McKune’s legal guardian. His remaining family had either passed away or fallen out of contact over the preceding decades. “We had been friends for so long,” she explains. “When the time came for someone to take over his guardianship, it just made sense.”
Today, McKune lives at Hammer’s Carlson Home in Wayzata with five other adults with disabilities. His room is a testament to his lifelong love of trucks and machinery; magazine ads for bulldozers and semi trucks dot the walls, and stacks of more magazines stand at the ready. Walker has taken him many times over the years to visit the Zeigler dealer in Shakopee, McKune says. He has come to know the owners and employees there, explains Walker, and they’ve gotten to enjoy his visits and his enthusiasm.
The two have also made a tradition of going to the State Fair every year, where they enjoy the fireworks, another favorite of McKune.
The video of Walker and McKune’s conversation, as well as two other profiles, can be viewed online at hammer.org.