Cancer patients at the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center in Reed City can look out and see bluebirds and other feathered friends coming and going from their homes in birdhouses on the grounds.
Those houses are the product of the creativity and skill of Gene Bongard, a retired industrial specialist, Army veteran and two-time cancer survivor.
In appreciation of his fellow patients, and those who administered the treatments he received at the cancer center, he turned his highly specialized hobby into a way of saying thanks.
Gene built and installed five custom birdhouses at the center, strategically placed outside the facility to be visible as patients enter and leave, and while they receive treatments.
“He’s a wonderful, generous guy who has brought a lot of joy to our patients over the last couple years,” said Irene Balowski, who retired in July as director of the cancer center. “I wanted one of my last activities at the center to be a staff thank you and photo with Gene at one of his birdhouses. What he’s done has meant a lot to so many people.”
Bongard modestly shrugs off the praise of the staff and fellow patients, saying, “They’ve done a lot more for me than I’ve done for them.”
He overcame prostate cancer in the 1990s and, in 2015-16, he successfully battled colon cancer while being treated at the cancer center.
After becoming cancer-free in November 2016, Bongard decided to build and donate the birdhouses, installing his creations in 2017.
A skilled craftsman, Bongard has built hundreds of birdhouses since 1994, including about 100 in the style of those he made for the cancer center.
Each house sits on a sturdy pole with a cylindrical predator guard to keep the birds safe. Each is cleverly designed for easy maintenance and cleaning. Bongard cleans them out after the birds depart in the fall, so they’ll be tidy for the birds to build nests again in the spring.
Bongard loves all kinds of birds. He’s built houses for bluebirds, tree swallows, nuthatches, tufted titmice, chickadees, English sparrows and downy woodpeckers. He notes that different birds prefer different sizes of entry holes for their homes.
But he says his favorites are the bluebirds.
He’s on a mission to restore the habitat for bluebirds, which he observes are disappearing from the area. In fact, his current design has evolved so his houses now have a raised back. That’s because bluebirds, Bongard said, like to have an elevated perch.
It all started because Bongard’s wife, Diane, wanted one for their house in the country. She requested one in the style of a log cabin. After that, he kept on building.
His log cabin birdhouses have ended up in such far-away places as Switzerland and western Canada.
Patients and staff alike have commented that the connection to nature provided by watching the birds helps with relaxation and healing.
As for Bongard, he plans to go right on building his birdhouses, and tending the ones he’s installed around the cancer center.
“It’s a good feeling to help folks get a little relief from what they’re going through with cancer,” he said.