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Wrong number results in friendship between Iowa firefighter, senior citizen

The friendship began when New Hartford Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Brad Swarts got a call from an elderly woman on his work phone


New Hartford Fire Rescue

By Donald Promnitz
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

WATERLOO, Iowa — Getting the wrong number is usually a minor inconvenience. For New Hartford Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Brad Swarts, it was the start of an unlikely friendship.

It began when Swarts got a call from an elderly woman on his work phone at Cedar Falls Utilities. When he answered, she realized that it was the wrong number and hung up before he could find out more. It happened a few more times, and eventually he was able to keep her on the phone.

“I couldn’t keep her on the phone long enough to figure out who she was,” Swarts said. “And I’m like, she’s always trying to get a hold of somebody and she’s never getting them — she’s getting the wrong person.”

Swarts finally figured out who she was. He learned her name was Norma Vanderloo and that she lived at Friendship Village. He also discovered the intended recipient of her accidental dials was her daughter, Ronda Den Herder — with her number ending in 2923 and his in 9223.

The two had a few brief conversations when Vanderloo misdialed, but one day before Thanksgiving he was unable to get to the phone. Thinking it was her daughter, Vanderloo explained in the voicemail that her husband, Virgil, was having a bad day with his health. Feeling bad for her, Swarts decided to do something for his accidental acquaintance.

Vanderloo, 95, was surprised to find a small Christmas tree waiting for her, courtesy of Swarts. Meanwhile, the staff Friendship Village took down his information despite Swarts’s best efforts to stay anonymous.

“Even when I dropped it off I tried running out the door, and there were three people and one — she was not letting me get out,” Swarts said. “So I had to explain: ‘This is going to be weird that I’m bringing this. You don’t know me, but this is kind of how it happened.’ So I explained it all to them.”

This resulted in Swarts and his wife, Kobey, finally meeting Vanderloo for dinner at Friendship Village on Tuesday.

“So often, people don’t go that extra mile, but also you were so special in that families tend to not pay attention to folks as they age and we see it so often,” Friendship Village CEO Lisa Gates told him over dinner. “But you went the extra (mile) just for somebody you didn’t even know.”

“I love this because one of our core values is (being) family-focused,” said Sheila Brustkern. “And we are family as like this is such an awesome, awesome example of that.”

For her part, Vanderloo said that her encounter with Swarts was all she hoping for and more, finding him as kind in person as he was on the phone.

“I was hoping he would be a nice guy,” she said.

Meanwhile, Brad and Kobey Swarts have found in Vanderloo not only a friend but a sudden extension to their family. Having lost all their grandparents previously, the two said they’ve “adopted” Vanderloo as an honorary grandmother.

“I said to (Brad) this is kind of full circle,” Kobey said. “We’re getting a grandma even if you get to talk her on the phone and we live in my grandma’s house, so it’s pretty nostalgic to us that we just have that connection.”

“It’s crazy how it all worked out,” Swarts said.

Vanderloo seemed more than happy to take up the mantle, amazed that a wrong number somehow added to the size of her family.

“What are you going to bring next?” Vanderloo joked.


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