Walker, young at 91, bids REAL Meals farewell after 18 years
This coming Monday, as she's done for the past 18 years, Ruth Walker will undertake her duties as site director at Culver's REAL Services nutrition site at the Culver beach lodge, but with one difference: Monday will mark her final day "on the job," and the Culver community is invited to offer her thanks and send her off in style.
She's earned it. At age 91, Walker's role at REAL Meals began after she thought she was retired.
"I didn't get started by my will," she insists, recalling the day in November, 1995, when she agreed to come to the nutrition site, which was then located at the Lions Club depot several hundred yards west of the beach lodge. In those days, her late husband Tom used to volunteer there regularly, and one day the site director asked if Ruth would come down and join him.
"I was in the kitchen helping her and she said, 'You know Ruth, you'd make a good site director. Tom said, 'Oh no she won't!' And I've been site director ever since. He was in the auditorium when I said it -- I didn't know his hearing was that good!"
Of course, the Walkers' visible role in Culver didn't start with REAL Meals -- not by a long shot.
A self-described "Okie," Ruth says she was manager at a government post exchange during World War II when Tom was attending officers' school in Oklahoma.
"I was standing out in front of the entryway steps for some reason and he went by...and told his rider, 'I'm going to marry that woman.' Ten days later, we were married. Somebody said it would never last."
But last it did. Were Tom, who was born and raised in Culver and died in 2006, still alive today, the couple would this year celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary.
The couple moved to Culver in 1945, when Tom purchased Mel Keen's photo studio on Lake Shore Drive and Lake Street.
"I came into Culver for the first time on the Doodlebug (train), and I thought, 'What have I got myself into?' Tom was coming from his military post at Indianapolis, so his mother met me. We went out to their cottage on the lake and I thought, 'Holy smokes!' It was cold and there was ice on the lake. I had never seen that before!
"But I have never regretted it. I love Culver. I don't think I could ever be happy any other place."
Besides running the studio for decades, Ruth notes they also purchased Henry Hinkle's taxi cab service, which they ran for many years as well.
"One minute you'd be shooting a (Culver Academy) cadet or a baby," she says of the photo business, "and the next minute you're shooting Newman's cows! I never thought I'd do something like that, but it was fun."
In more recent years, Tom and Ruth, who also raised their only child, son Thomas K., in Culver, purchased a farm on 17th Road. That they sold before buying Ruth's present house on Lake Shore Drive.
Up to 1987, Ruth had also worked at Culver Academies "for 20 or 30 years," having been asked by Charlie Ricciardi in the tailor shop to help out as a seamstress. She was managing the department by the time she retired.
"I have never worked at a place I didn't enjoy," she notes.
Over the years, the Walkers were active in Culver's VFW Post and Lions Club, as well as Wesley United Methodist Church, where Ruth still attends.
She and Tom, a veteran of World War II in the famous 1st American Volunteer Group "Flying Tigers," traveled a while after what they thought was her retirement.
"I hadn't planned to go back to work," says Ruth of the start of the REAL Services chapter of her life.
When she started at the nutrition site for older adults, which meets for lunch and socializing each weekday, there were 40 to 45 attendees. As regulars passed away or entered the nursing home, that number has dwindled to the point that volunteers are seeking to spread the word about the service in hopes to keep numbers up and keep the site open.
"We have the nicest site area there," she says, alluding especially to the sprawling view of Lake Maxinkuckee from the beach lodge meeting room's windows.
Each weekday morning (excepting holidays and days when inclement weather has forced the doors to close) for the past 18 years, Ruth Walker has arrived at the beach lodge 30 to 45 minutes prior to the required arrival time of 10 a.m. A log records attendance, food temperatures, and each step of the process, which also includes sanitizing tables and cleanup after the meal.
Walker says it's a "special day" when residents of Culver's Pathfinders group home come to lunch at REAL Meals.
"When they come down they are so happy and it isn't just the food," she says. "It's the idea of getting out and being with some other people. I take my hat off to the people who work there."
Wednesdays usually mean volunteers at the site from a local church, service club, or Miller's Merry Manor nursing home, which also provides blood pressure and sugar screenings for attendees the first Wednesday of the month, as well as "musical bingo."
She adds that Culver park superintendent Kelly Young "has been very nice. I have no complaints."
She has enjoyed -- and continues to enjoy -- those who share a meal at the site such as Pearl Harbor survivor and former Culver bowling alley owner Jim Dewitt, a regular.
But Walker saves particular praise for Jeanette Geiselman, who she says she considers her assistant, even if Geiselman waives off the title.
"Jeanette is one of the nicest people God ever put on this earth," Walker says. "She's really a special lady. I can be off and she does the job....and she won't leave until I leave. My sisters are both gone now; she's as near a sister as I have."
Ruth Walker doesn't know who will take the reins as site director for Culver's REAL Meals program, but she rejects expectations that she might resent any new direction taken by the next director.
"We need somebody new to get in there and I don't feel badly about it," she explains. "They can get somebody new with new ideas and you can build (attendance) back to where it was."
She says some have worried she won't have enough to do, but she insists there's plenty at home she'd like to get done. Plus, just because she'll be wrapping up her tenure as site director doesn't mean she has to be a stranger at REAL Meals.
"I was informed I'd better go get a meal down there (at the nutrition site) sometimes! It won't be every day," she adds with a smile, "but we'll see."
A 'THANK YOU' RECEPTION FOR RUTH WALKER
A farewell party will be held for Ruth Walker will take place during REAL Meals Mon., Sept. 30, during the noon meal, when the public is welcome to come by and greet her. Those wishing to make a reservation to share lunch with the group, which meets at the Culver beach lodge, may do so by calling 574-842-8878 by Wednesday (guests need not make reservations to attend the celebration and enjoy some cake).