How Steve Shields changed life in senior facilities

By Corene Brisendine

Steve Shields moved to Manhattan 20 years ago to attend Kansas State University, but that’s not what kept him here.

He said the desire to live here was based on a moment of clarity. His mother became ill and needed to go to a nursing home. She had only been there a short time when an accident occurred that left her unable to walk. He said she was dancing and was knocked down by a floor buffer.

“I was just so angry — not at the janitor, because it was an accident — but at the attitude that [the nursing home staff] had with me about it: that she was a problem and she shouldn’t have been dancing.”

Shields said as he was driving home he had a “moment of clarity and rage.” He said, “They should be dancing.”

So, when he walked through the front door and announced to his wife Sally that he was going back to school, she understood. Originally, he had planned to attend the University of Kansas, but Sally being a fourth generation graduate of K-State, insisted Shields attend her alma mater. “That’s where I’ll draw the line. Mom and Dad would just die if we go to KU!” he said quoting Sally.

Shields said he planned the stay in Manhattan for only a brief visit, similar to his three years working on off-shore drilling rigs off the coasts of Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. He said between 20 and 23, he wanted to see the world, and see it he did. He would spend 28 days on the rig and 28 days on leave. So, every other month he “traveled the world with a backpack.” But when his parents fell ill, his tour de world was cut short.

“So, four weeks later, I was at K-State,” Shields said. “[My wife] had a job as a nurse and we had a house because I was hell-bent to get [my mother] out of that place.”

Shields said he wanted to get a degree as quickly as possible and then either buy a nursing home, or get hired as the director.

As a part of his education, Shields had to complete an internship. He did that at Meadowlark.

The CEO position opened. He applied and was hired. For the next 17 years, Shields transformed Meadowlark into what it is today.

But Shields told himself at the time he would only stay until his parents died. His mother died in 1999, and his father in 2007, but Shields didn’t leave Meadowlark until 2011.

“By the time he died, I was in love with everybody there,” Shields said. “Meadowlark will always be my greatest love because it is community owned and community fabric.”

Shields said he felt there was a social desire for him to move far away and start life over there, but there was something about the community that made him resist the urge. So, he decided to open a company designed to help other communities — not only in the U.S., but also around the world — change the way they operated senior housing and nursing homes.

“People who may have mentored us or taught us Sunday school — been material in our lives — are put to the side and are in these human warehouses,” Shields said. “Every little town has them.”

His business, Action Pact, has been steadily growing and expanding over the past three years. But that doesn’t mean he has been taking it easy. He said starting any business is hard, and starting a business at 53 is just as difficult.

“When you are building a company, there’s a three to five year period where you’re the rain maker and you have to run hard,” he said. “That’s the stage that I’m in.”

He said he spends most of the time traveling all over the U.S. It is common for him to visit four or five states a week. When he is home, he said he focuses spending time with his son, who is in his last year of high school.

While he does travel extensively for business, he said last year he bought an old camper to take trips in with his son. He said they plan to visit Boston as part of his son’s search for the right college. Shields said he also makes time to spend a week every November with a group of friends he made when he was 23 years old. He said 16 friends were all broke and just starting out in life, but pooled their money together to rent a cabin at C Ranch in California. That first year, they could only afford one cabin, and most of them slept on the floor in sleeping bags and they “flipped a coin to see who would sleep in the beds.” Over the years, as their careers and families grew, they rented more cabins and no longer had to flip coins for beds. He said last year, the numbers had dwindled again to like it was when they first went because their children were grown and starting families of their own. But that didn’t mean they don’t know how to have fun.

He said they were in the back yard playing a game similar to croquet but without the mallets. They were all laughing and having a good time, when the police showed up and asked them to keep it down.

“We are all pushing 60,” Shields said. “We kind of quieted down and went inside the house, and we said, ‘Oh my gosh, we can still get in trouble with the police.’ That was fun.”

Shields said he would like to have some time — not necessarily a lot of time — between retirement and death to “piddle.” He said as he gets older and realizes his own mortality, he would like to grow a garden, own an old pick-up truck and spend time in his garden “just piddling.”

He said his time at Meadowlark has taught him how to keep what’s most important in life in the forefront, and let all the other little things that get in the way fall away.

“I learned from people who have survived life into their 80s and 90s how to sift out what’s important, and really how to organize yourself — whether it is in your business or otherwise — that you will have impact and not have thoughts that aren’t important or are a waste of time,” he said. “I’ve learned how to minimize that, and I am grateful.”

Shields said he doesn’t care if he is remembered after he dies, knowing most people are forgotten within 20 to 30 years after death anyway, but he wants to have affected the community. He said that is what is most important to him.

“I don’t what the measure of what’s ahead of me to be ‘Well, I traveled and took vacations, made donations to worthy causes, and I had a nice home; and then I am gone,’” he said. “I really want to have had impact, not thinking about that to be remembered, but for the sake of impact itself.”

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