At Large In Ballard: Banking on John Booth

By Peggy Sturdivant

“I’m going back to work next Monday,” Evelyn Gardner told me, “It’s going to seem so good.” Not just any Monday back to work as she’s been home for several weeks after a fall. The 93 year-old can’t wait to return to her friends at Ballard Food Bank. However an important fellow volunteer won’t be there on her return. The other 93 year-old volunteer John Booth died on June 28th, having left his shift a bit early the day before.

Evelyn Gardner and the late John Booth are just a few of the volunteers, including Thelma Anderson and Lou Mushta who have worked there 1-3 days per week for over 20 years. “I’ve been there twenty-four,” Gardner clarified. “Volunteering is fun, because you don’t have to do it.”

As Ballard Food Bank staff and volunteers learned about John Booth’s death their reminiscences shed light on the camaraderie that exists among people who have been working together by choice for decades, often starting after retirement in their 70’s.

Rita Weinstein contacted me from Florida upon hearing the news. She wrote, “During his 80s and into his 90s, we volunteered side by side, sorting (literally) tons of donations. He served in WWII as a bomber pilot, and I'm sure he had many stories he could have told of his exploits, yet I only heard him speak of it once. It was hard for him to reconcile the results on the ground of his service with his deeply held conviction of our responsibility to care for others, no matter who they were.”

Food Bank Manager Peggy Bailey shared how she will miss their morning chats as she was stocking the shelves and John was sorting the latest donations. “We rambled on and on about the news of the day and the latest news about the stray cats that seemed to find their way to John. Even the cats seemed to know John as a compassionate and giving soul.”

Weinstein felt that John had reunited in death with his late, beloved wife Joanne, “But I'm also certain that if he'd woken up Tuesday morning, he'd have pulled on his jeans and t-shirt again and showed up to work. We will all miss him greatly, but are all so much better for having had the privilege of knowing him.” Executive Director Jen Muzia and Food Bank Manager Peggy Bailey both weighed in that he was extraordinarily giving, one of many they could always count on.

Longtime volunteers can recall the small space in a former storefront on 24th NW operating as the North End Emergency Relief Center. It was close enough for Evelyn Gardner to walk to the cramped space where they struggled to sort donations and put together the sacks for pick-up. Even at the Leary Way location, “The donations come in all mixed up. I sort the stuff that comes in and John took care of the hygiene area.”

Booth’s Food Bank friends said his wife Joanne had also volunteered in the Food Bank’s kitchen. Before and after her death Booth had been a regular volunteer for over 25 years, despite living with cancer and participating in clinical trials for treatment. “He was at the food bank nearly every day, moving crates of food around, stocking the hygiene supplies, supervising the newbies, even as he began to move more slowly,” a colleague shared on Ballard Food Bank’s Facebook page.

Former volunteer (until relocating) Rita Weinstein put the work of older volunteers past and present, such as John Booth, Evelyn Gardner, Thelma Anderson, Lou Mushta and others into perspective, “The people who have served for decades, into their old age, is a beautiful story. Serving the community has kept them active socially and physically and has given them purpose. Feeling productive and believing they still have something to offer others is why they've been able to get up each day and work into their 90s.” 

Hearing the joy in Evelyn Gardner’s voice about returning to work next Monday really does speak for a generation that values helping others as their own reward in daily life. They came of age during World War II and see their retirement years as an opportunity to do more in the community. For Gardner the only problem now is transportation there since her family has nixed her driving herself. “They said, ‘Mom, you’re 93, what if you get in an accident?’”

Meanwhile Booth’s friends said that he had a remarkable past, which is no doubt true. But until his death on June 28th it’s clear that John Booth had a remarkable present, taking care of his cats, volunteering for his 25th year at the Ballard Food Bank and yes, still driving himself to work.

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