Former U employees gather for feast

Bryce Haugen

Philip Miller knew the smells of Thanksgiving were taunting guests in the basement of St. Anthony Park United Methodist Church on Wednesday. So just after noon, the octogenarian invited members of the St. Anthony Park Leisure Center and their guests to feast on turkey, stuffing and other “food from scratch,” as one member said.

“This time, instead of calling tables, we’ll just go for one big mess,” Miller said into a microphone. “It’s more fun that way.”

But Miller, one of the center’s officers, was overruled by fellow member Eileen Miley, whom he jokingly called “nobody special.”

Miley and Miller are among the 35 to 40 senior citizens who meet every Wednesday in this East St. Paul neighborhood church. Many – like Miley – are former University employees. Since 1970, St. Anthony Park Leisure Center has provided a place for these seniors to eat, play cards, sew and socialize. On Wednesday, approximately 90 people gathered for an early Thanksgiving dinner.

Though the Methodist church has always been its home, the center began as a cooperative effort between five area churches. It is “open to one and all,” said 30-year member Nancy Wenkel, the volunteer activities and crafts director.

“They wanted to have a place for older people to get together and meet one another, to do something to break up the week,” said Wenkel, who is a University alumna and a part-time secretary in the College of Continuing Education Conference Center.

A social event

A constant purr of conversation filled the church basement Wednesday. The room was minimally decorated, with gourds and mini-pumpkins placed on pre-set tables.

In one corner, four people played 500, the members’ card game of choice. In another, a group of women assembled turkey baskets. And in the adjacent room, volunteers prepared the pending feast.

The leisure center is a great place to socialize, said center vice chairwoman Henrietta Miller, an administrator in the department of biochemistry from 1938 to 1980.

“When you’re working you don’t have much time to meet people except in your own church,” she said. “But this involves five churches.”

Henrietta Miller and Philip Miller have been married for 46 years, but still joke that they are newlyweds.

Building strong community bonds is part of the tradition at the leisure center, said long-time members. Weekly attendance used to be two to three times what it is now, but because the neighborhood’s inhabitants are aging, numbers have dwindled.

At 96, former University Extension Service employee Gerald McKay is one of the oldest members at the center.

“I think there might be one older,” said McKay, who co-founded the University Alumni Band in 1947.

He said despite his age, the center lets him keep in touch with old friends.

Volunteer spirit

Leisure center members who are too old to drive receive rides from volunteers.

Volunteers are crucial for the organization, Wenkel said, since the cook, Maria Karpinski, is the only paid employee.

The center is financially supported by member churches, individual donations, charging a few dollars for lunch and through craft sales each Wednesday. There are no membership dues.

This week, Wenkel gave Helen Olsen, a 90-year-old founding member of the center, a ride.

“I’ve always worked with older people,” said Wenkel, who is younger than most members. “And I’ve sensed how much they like being together and doing something for someone else.”

For years, Olsen volunteered regularly in the kitchen. Now she mostly plays cards and chats, though she still helps out when needed.

After lunch, she sat and listened to guest musician Bob Gacek, who cracked Polish jokes and played Scandinavian polka tunes.

“I’ve got a cane now, but I can still dance,” Olsen said. “Dancing is my hobby. I’d be out there now if I could.”

In the kitchen, volunteers from each of the member churches cleaned up after the meal.

One volunteer, 84-year-old Dorothy Wanson, said she will continue working in the kitchen “as long as I’m able.”

Wanson’s family bleeds maroon and gold. Collectively, they boast more than 50 University degrees.

Community outreach

Beyond volunteering, the center also tries to build community connections, Wenkel said.

Twice a month, public health nurse Merodie Nielsen comes by to offer free blood pressure checks for members.

Nielsen, a 1967 University graduate, works for the St. Anthony Park Block Nurse Program. The program provides seniors with subsidized health care and rides to the doctor, she said.

“Our motto is to provide health care for everyone, regardless of race, color, creed or income level,” she said.

Wednesday, she sat at the crafts table, checking blood pressures and discussing life.

The program is about more than providing care, she said.

“People learn from the seniors, too,” she said. “It’s kind of a cross-fertilization.”

A few feet away, a student from the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Center assembled turkey baskets.

Joline Gay, 22, comes to the church each week to fulfill her school’s community service requirement.

“It’s fun. It’s my playtime,” she said. “And it’s a nice break from class work.”

“Darn good” food

It didn’t take long for minds to turn from turkey basket assembly to eating, when pumpkin and apple pies appeared on a table shortly before noon. Leisure center members and their guests raced to snag a pre-meal slice.

Philip Miller said the pie was supposed to be eaten after the main course, but former Radio K interviewer Janet Macy was in no mood to wait.

“I believe in eating dessert first,” she said, her words slightly muffled by pie.

Karpinski has been cooking at the leisure center for nine years, and her from-scratch pies have become legendary.

Leisure center members invited guests of a variety of ages and faiths, including a Japanese man who ate his first Thanksgiving dinner.

Northeast Minneapolis resident Pat Baumgarner came to St. Anthony Park with a few friends because of the food -and because Karpinski is her distant cousin.

“We know how darn good she is,” she said, in between bites of dinner. “She also dances a mean polka.”

Though Karpinski spent more than 24 hours preparing the meal, which included 77 pounds of turkey, 50 pounds of potatoes and 30 pounds of cranberries, she said she loves her job.

“The seniors just have a different appreciation level,” she said. “They keep me in the moment, because they have to live in the moment.”

The leisure center’s next big feast will be a Christmas celebration January 5.

“This year, we’re trying to celebrate all 12 days of Christmas,” Karpinski said.