Les and Mary Wiberg may have retired from the classroom 25 year ago, but they will always be teachers.
So in their namesake room on the pediatric floor of a Winfield hospital, the Wheaton couple sound like their former selves meeting Hailey Matusz, an 8-year-old patient. On this morning, the little girl and her mom are waiting on the results of medical tests about what might have caused her seizure at school and another one in the ambulance.
Les Wiberg only broaches the topic once -- to reassure Hailey.
"They'll get to the bottom of it here," he tells her.
The former educators know that the Mary E. and Leslie A. Wiberg Idea Lab at Northwestern Medicine's Central DuPage Hospital is a "medical-free zone." Here, pediatric patients are art students who work on projects of their choice under the instruction of teaching artists from Snow City Arts, a Chicago nonprofit group.
The Wibergs don't ask Hailey about her doctors or nurses, but want to hear the third-grader from Spring Grove recite a simile poem she's written about flowers. When she's finished, Les and Mary Wiberg are teachers once again, giving a student high marks for a job well done.
"Terrific!" Les Wiberg tells Hailey.
"Very nice," Mary Wiberg adds.
Last February, Central DuPage became the first suburban hospital to partner with Snow City Arts to bring workshops in the visual arts, music and writing to the bedsides of young patients.
But in the Idea Lab, kids have a space of their own to use their imaginations and find a creative outlet. Doctors are only allowed if patients invite them.
"This is their territory," Mary Wiberg says.
The couple's donation to the Northwestern Memorial Foundation paid for the construction of the Idea Lab. The hospital opened the room in October and named the space after the Wibergs in honor of their philanthropy and volunteer work at Central DuPage over the past 25 years.
Ask them about why they give back, and Les Wiberg's answer is another teachable moment, especially at this time of year.
"I'm very aware of opportunities that I received from other people's kindness, and it's nice to be able to do something in return," he says.
'We've been blessed'
Les Wiberg never intended to become a teacher. He was a frustrated graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, working on a doctorate in history and "bogged down on a thesis." His adviser suggested he take a year off.
In 1961, a recruiter at Oak Park and River Forest High School offered him a job.
"I thought I'd be here for a year, and then I'd go back to Madison," he says. "Well, I liked it so much I never went back."
He also never finished that thesis and, at Oak Park, met the woman who would become his wife. Les Wiberg developed an honors track program in world history at the high school, while Mary Wiberg ran the home economics department as chairwoman.
"I was so delighted at Oak Park. I had such wonderful students," Les Wiberg recalls. "They taught themselves. They were so bright and so able, and they were so much fun to work with."
Mary Wiberg would retire in 1986, followed by her husband Les in 1992.
"We both felt we've been blessed all the years that we were teaching," she says.
Les Wiberg, too, sees blessings in the fellowships that supported his education and in his professional mentors.
"You're all so young, you don't realize it," he says while meeting a reporter and Hailey and her mom. "You haven't had 80 or 90 years of reflection back over a life where you realize how often you were the benefactor or the recipient of other people's concerns and kindness.
"I think, from our vantage point, we realized that more and more. And it's a real treat to be able to give younger people, or any age people, something because we were given so much coming up along the way."
So after they retired, the Wibergs decided to pay it forward.
Mary Wiberg started volunteering at Central DuPage in the hospital's gift shop, helping families pick out presents for their sick loved ones. Her husband began helping transport patients around the hospital.
Les Wiberg still volunteers on Mondays, replenishing supplies at sanitary stations at entrances, directing visitors and doing clerical work.
"Hopefully we are benefiting other people and willing to give of our time and energy," a modest Mary Wiberg says.
The couple also have been longtime donors to the hospital's foundation.
"Les and Mary have been an integral part of the CDH family for over 25 years, giving back through their volunteer service and support of many key hospital initiatives, particularly those that affect the health of children," said Clare Malysiak, director of philanthropy for the Northwestern Memorial Foundation.
"Always working to make the DuPage community a better place, the Wibergs are role models -- it is truly an honor to work alongside them."
The couple made a major donation -- they won't say how much -- that helped kick-start funding for the construction of the Ronald McDonald House and then helped lead the campaign to get more donors on board for the project.
Opened in 2005, the two-story, Craftsman-style house provides a low-cost or free place to stay for families of sick children receiving treatment at the hospital across the street.
"Sometimes there's an extended family there because parents can't leave a child at home that's well," Les Wiberg says. "They'll come with one or two other children, and that gets to be a handful, and so the Ronald McDonald House here really is set up to deal with a lot of those kind of situations."
Contributing to the Idea Lab project was a natural fit for the former educators. The lab's programs offer respite and normalcy for kids, but also adhere to academic standards so students can receive school credit during a hospitalization.
"I was just blown away by some of the work," Les Wiberg says of a Snow City open house exhibition he attended.
The lab feels far removed from sterile, clinical hospital rooms.
Students can make use of art supplies, instruments, cameras and a small library of art books in a room with natural lighting and patterned floors. Teaching artists display student collages and paintings on the walls, providing a jumping-off point for kids to create their own version.
In that setting, they can immerse themselves in their projects and think about something other than their illness, even if temporarily.
"At best that's what we're providing, the opportunity to not be a collection of symptoms, to not be asked the typical questions that a patient is asked in the hospital," says Eric Elshtain, a Snow City teaching artist.
Instructors invite kids, if they're able, to the room to work together or in groups with other kids. And if they decline?
"In a funny way, we take that also as a success because we've helped the student find a voice that they can't otherwise have in a hospital, which is the opportunity to say 'no,'" Elshtain says.
The Wibergs say they're flattered the lab bears their name. But still teachers, they're mostly curious about the student artwork. So when Hailey finishes a collage, Les Wiberg has to ask:
"May I see?"