Vietnam veteran maximizes life amid mortality
Unsung HeroDick Silk's volunteerism is a focus for living

Vietnam veteran maximizes life amid mortality

Dick Silk, a perpetual volunteer

Photo by Mary Lou Silk
Dick Silk, a perpetual volunteer Photo by Mary Lou Silk

There is life, death and Dick Silk teetering in between. At 74, the Plum resident’s fluctuation with demise is a self-inflicted condition. As a regular volunteer at Sivitz Jewish Hospice, Silk spends much of his week with the terminally ill. There is the half-a-day on Friday, when he sits, talks or reads books with patients, but there are also the unpredictable periods when Silk stays with the moribund during the darkest moments of time.

As a member of Sivitz’s No One Dies Alone program, Silk is “on-call” for death.

“They will send out an email to us saying so and so is actively dying, can you come and sit with them, and that’s what we do, whether it’s at night or in the morning,” he said.

Regardless of whether it means staying with a stranger at 3:30 a.m. on a Thursday or 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, Silk ensures that everyone is escorted out of life.

“Nobody should die alone,” he said. “There should always be someone there.”

For failing individuals, the comfort of close friends or family can be a boon, but circumstances do not always facilitate such cases.

“If there’s no family, then you make sure you’re there,” he said. “It could be a scary thing for them. It could be a lot of things, but you want to be there for them.”

Silk, a husband and grandfather who spent 25 years on the road selling clothing for the Lee company, has been with Sivitz for close to a decade. Approximately five years ago, he joined the No One Dies Alone program. The golden rule drove both decisions.

“I would want that for me if I was in that position. I tell my wife that it could be me sometime, and I would want someone there.”

While being a sentient septuagenarian may not be surprising, the context for such acuity is instructive.

Nearly five decades ago, the former Stanton Heights native was sent to Vietnam.

As part of a seven-man advisory team, Silk, the radio operator, worked alongside Vietnamese militias. Whatever support was needed — air, medical, artillery — Silk called it in.

Less laconic than terse, the Army veteran briefly described his military stint: “It was OK; well, we were in a little bit of combat, not much. I hate to say that kind of stuff. I spent a year there, and I was glad to come home. I mean I’m proud of my service there, but now it’s over, and you move on from there.”

However, transitioning was not simple for the then 22-year-old whose introduction to mortality came via Vietnam.

“I would say the first couple of years it wasn’t so wonderful, but now, and I mean that, I lead a great life,” Silk said. “I’m happy for the way things are, and I’m there to help people if I can because I think that’s what we’re here for: to help each other.”

Such determination of purpose is evident from the catalog of causes supported.

On Mondays, Silk distributes coffee and doughnuts to fellow veterans. Depending on the season, the remaining days are dedicated to assisting the Federation of War Veterans Societies of Allegheny County, Disabled American Veterans, Sharing and Caring, Inc., an organization “dedicated to improving the lives of hospitalized veterans,” Vietnam Veterans Inc., the Jewish War Veterans, two American Legions and traveling with Rabbi Eli Seidman, director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging, to the Southwestern Veterans’ Center.

“Dick cares a lot about people,” Seidman said. “He will always go the extra mile to visit people. He really cares.”

But while “helping” or “visiting” represent Silk’s style, the fraternization that he supplies extends beyond the animate, as indicated by his frequenting the Homestead Hebrew Cemetery.

“I try to go there every Friday to check it out. I try to be there when there are funerals, stuff like that, or whatever the cemetery needs. The guy who does our grounds keeping, I stay in touch with him.”

To the casual observer of Silk’s undertakings, it may seem as though his manufactured mountain of morbidity is depressing, but it is actually a focus for living.

“You want to live life to the fullest as much as you can and try to do all you can for each other,” he said.

And despite the enormity of effort exhibited in every activity, Silk’s demeanor has enabled him to largely evade public praise.

“I just feel that there are a lot more people who do a lot more stuff than I do,” he said.

People should understand that Silk is “one of the exceptional few,” said Seidman. “I have been at the JAA for 22 years, and I can say I have never met a volunteer like Dick Silk.”  pjc

This article is part of a new, ongoing series of profiles of the unsung heroes of the Jewish community.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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