WATERVILLE — Through good times and lean, Dick Willette Sr. has run the Sacred Heart Soup Kitchen, ensuring thousands of needy people have had hot meals five days a week.

There were days during his 36 years of volunteering for the kitchen when he wasn’t sure he had enough money to feed the hungry for another month, so he’d dip into his own pocket to bail the kitchen out. When things got really tough, he appealed to the community and donors always came through.

While Willette, the soup kitchen director for the last 20 years, loves his work, he knows it is time to give up the reins and let someone younger take over.

“I’ve worked all my life and I just feel it’s time,” said Willette, who is 83.

He plans to retire from the soup kitchen Dec. 30 and hopes to find a replacement by Nov. 1, although he has had a difficult time finding someone willing to do it. “It might have to be two people — one to be treasurer and take care of the money and pay the bills, and the other one to run this place,” he said.

Willette is at the soup kitchen in the basement of Sacred Heart Church on Pleasant Street from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. five days a week, despite the fact that his legs are weak and he must use a walker to get around. About six years ago, his wife of 59 years, Grace, died, and he was devastated. But two years ago, he married Gloria Beaulieu, who owns and runs a food pantry in Fairfield Center and pays all of its expenses. They met when she delivered food to the soup kitchen. He said he wants to be able to travel with her while he can.

“I made up my mind,” he said. “I remarried. She’s a little younger and she hasn’t been anywhere, really, and we have a 31-foot travel camper and I plan to get done with no ties and travel to Florida and Alaska, take a trip and just enjoy a little bit of life.”

Monday through Friday, 80 to 140 people come to the kitchen to eat lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., according to Willette. He has 35 to 40 dedicated volunteers, many of whom have been there 20-plus years.

“I’ll be around,” he said. “I carry my cellphone and I’ll be around to answer questions. I’m not going to leave them in the lurch. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing.”

SPECIAL TALENTS

Willette’s shoes will be hard to fill, according to Paul McDonald, 79, who is a 22-year volunteer.

“The whole community here is going to miss him,” McDonald said. “He’s been stalwart. He’s organized; that’s the big thing. We can pick up things and sweep the floor, but to organize this kitchen takes special talents.”

Like Willette, McDonald said whenever things look bleak for the kitchen, people always pitch in to help with money or labor.

“It’s like there’s a blessing going on here,” he said.

Joan Phillips-Sandy accompanies students from Mount Merici Academy in Waterville to the soup kitchen every Wednesday during the school year to help serve food and clean up the dining room. She has done so for 31 years and knows Willette well.

“I can’t imagine this place without Dick,” Phillips-Sandy said, as sixth- and seventh-graders scooped food out of hot trays onto patrons’ plates this past Wednesday.

“To a large extent, he really single-handedly kept it going through bad times. When he told me he was retiring, I just couldn’t believe it. I think I didn’t want to believe it. But he deserves his time off, too. He’s in here every day. He deserves the time for himself, but I just can’t imagine it without him.”

Phillips-Sandy remembers the early days of the soup kitchen and how quickly the number of patrons increased.

“There’s such a need for this place,” she said. “I’ve seen it grow over the years. I just hope somebody steps up to find a way to keep it going.”

PRAYER AND A MEAL

Wearing a long white apron, Willette pushed his walker to the front of the dining room Wednesday as a long line of men, women and children waited to eat.

As he does each day, Willette said a prayer and the clatter of serving spoons started.

The long tables filled up with people, and Connie Wood, 65, of Vassalboro, was eating chili, rice and fruit salad with her husband, Ronnie, 74, and friends, including a homeless woman she invited to stay her house.

Wood said she has been coming to the kitchen since it opened in 1980 and, like Phillips-Sandy, said the kitchen will never be the same without Willette.

“He’s really good at it,” Wood said. “We need someone like him who can continue working so we know this is going to be there, because there are a lot of people on the streets that need food who come here. I know I wouldn’t want to leave.

“When I first started coming here, there was only five of us. With this many people, what would we do if we didn’t have this kitchen? I come because it helps me a little bit on my bills; it helps me with a lot of things.”

Wood said the state should help keep the kitchen afloat, “put some money into this.”

Wayman and Lena O’Neal, of Benton, learned about the soup kitchen from Connie Wood. They said Willette runs a tight ship and if people don’t mind their manners, he speaks to them and they listen.

“He wants order and you have to have peace and order,” Lena said. “He’s very good about telling them nicely.”

Connie Wood said all of the people who eat at the soup kitchen are unemployed.

“Some live out in the woods,” she said.

David Quirion, 50, of Waterville, said he has been eating at the soup kitchen about 30 years and met his wife there. He said Willette has helped a lot of people in his 36 years.

“I will miss him,” Quirion said. “I’m on a fixed income myself. We’ve been struggling for years, me and my wife. We appreciate everything that went on here.”

THE LONG HAUL

Willette, one of the soup kitchen’s founders, remembers the first day it was open — Sept. 17, 1980 — when several people came to eat.

It has been a struggle over the years. Four years ago, he was afraid the kitchen would have to close; but after stories appeared in the Morning Sentinel about the organization’s plight, people donated money and that kept the kitchen afloat. But over time, that pot of money has dwindled.

“We’re not holding our own — we’re digging into our savings,” he said. “I’ve got about $50,000 to turn over to the new regime.”

The kitchen buys food from a food supplier in Greene and receives donations from Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets, as well as Mid-State Machine, United Way of Mid-Maine, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others, he said.

Donations are always needed, he said.

“Waterville, Winslow and Oakland have used us good,” Willette said. “I still have some checks coming in. Some people send in $5 or $10 a month. It helps and it’s rewarding to them. They can’t give a lot of money because they are retired. Younger people have all they can do to survive. They’ve got kids and it’s quite expensive to live.”

Willette owned and operated Chase Fuel in Winslow 52 years, sold the business and retired 15 years ago while still running the soup kitchen.

“I hate to get done,” he said. “I’d rather die here. This place takes care of people, and that’s our goal — to take care of people.”

Gloria Audet, a 10-year volunteer, fears the kitchen will be in trouble when Willette leaves at the end of the year, even though she said the volunteers are dedicated and capable.

“Everybody does well, but he’s the glue that keeps it together,” she said. “He deserves a rest. It’s been a long haul.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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