SIOUX CENTER—A smile beamed across Peter Andersen’s face as a Casey’s Bakery employee sang “Happy Birthday” over the loud speaker for all to hear Friday morning.
The moment was more than icing on the cake as his friends, prior to the song, gave Andersen a marble cake proclaiming “40th Birthday Greetings Peter” along with some balloons in honor of his birthday milestone.
“I just thought it was going to be like any other day,” Andersen said. “I’m blown away my friends did this.”
Andersen, a former Boeing engineer, no longer works due to a progressive, degenerative, genetic disease called SCA or spinocerebellar ataxia that slowly claims a person’s muscle use and balance — the same disease that claimed his father’s life at 60 years old.
There’s no known effective treatment or cure.
Andersen began noticing symptoms of the disease about 10 years ago. Being unable to continue working, the Sanborn native moved to Sioux Center in 2013 to be closer to family. One of his three sisters lived in town at that time. Though his sister has since moved, Andersen, his wife, Ornuma, and their 9-year-old daughter, Isabella, have chosen to stay in Sioux Center.
Though Andersen’s body is wheelchair bound, his speech is getting slower and his typing is limited to two fingers at a time, his mind remains sharp — and he’s found a group for friends who are dedicated to keeping it that way.
“It’s pretty special to have friends to solve the world’s problems with,” he said.
The group spends about an hour and half every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Casey’s Bakery, drinking coffee and discussing “significant things,” said one longtime attendee Willis Alberda of Sioux Center.
The men’s coffee group itself, made up mostly of retired educators, originally began about 13 years ago as a way to talk about various subjects, not just family, grandchildren and the weather.
They met Andersen shortly after he moved to the area, invited him to coffee “and he hasn’t left us alone since,” said Alberda with a laugh.
In fact, the group finds themselves learning from Andersen.
“He’s the know-it-all for all things technical,” said group member George Faber of Sioux Center. “It’s fun to keep learning.”
Andersen’s sense of humor and interest in a variety of topics keeps discussions interesting.
“We’ve talked about everything, from politics, global warming, the border crisis, even local issues,” Alberda said. “We talk about solutions to different things. We may not always agree but we can have that healthy discussion here. It keeps all our minds thinking.”
“Through it all Peter never complains,” said group member Peter Vander Plaats. “You’d think he’d have the most to complain about, but that’s not on his mind. The world and solutions to its problems are his focus.”
“I enjoy hanging out with the old dudes,” Andersen said, smiling again. “People willing to listen to each other — that’s what friends are. Age doesn’t matter.”
Friends certainly do make birthdays more enjoyable.
“You never know how many birthdays you have, especially me,” Andersen said, “but I know I like this one this year.”