Meals on Wheels volunteer still serving at age 98

By Published On: March 21st, 2024

Ralph, a 96-year-old World War II veteran, has been delivering Meals on Wheels in Keizer since 1992. 

Meals on Wheels driver Ralph has been delivering food to seniors in Keizer for quite a long time — so long, in fact, that when asked when he began volunteering with the program, he takes a moment to recall the year: 1992.

“I remember by the cars I had,” he says, “and I bought a new Dodge Spirit in ’91.”

That he would remember years based on the car he drove at the time makes sense. He spent 42 years working as an auto mechanic, starting out working at his uncle’s Studebaker dealership before moving on to work on other bygone brands like Rambler and Packard. Ralph was retired in 1992 when he and his late wife, Dorothy, began delivering Meals on Wheels together.

“We tried it, and I’m still doing it,” he says with a chuckle.

At 96 years old, Ralph has experienced a lot of change in the world, in his community, and in his life. Born in 1925 and raised in the small Marion County community of Fairfield, he remembers seeing steamboats navigate the Willamette River as a boy. He was drafted into the Army’s 76th Division during World War II, and earned a Purple Heart after being wounded fighting near the German border in 1945. He moved to Keizer in 1950, and fondly recalls picking cherries in orchards along Cherry Avenue.

“I don’t think there’s a pie cherry tree left anywhere out there, it’s all apartments,” Ralph says.

Ralph has been delivering Meals on Wheels in Keizer since 1992. 

Another major change took place in 2017, when Dorothy passed away. Near the end of her life, her son Curt would come take care of her on Thursdays while Ralph was out delivering Meals on Wheels. After Dorothy died, Curt decided to take her place delivering meals with his stepfather, who kept driving despite the loss of his partner.

“It had become a habit,” Ralph says. “I think I would feel really lost if I didn’t do it.”

Having Curt along for the ride every week gives the men, both of whom live alone, a chance to catch up. “We call them bull sessions,” Ralph says.

It also makes it easier to deliver the meals, with Ralph remaining behind the wheel while Curt gets out to bring meals to clients’ doors. Curt also serves as co-pilot from his position in the back seat (which offers more space to accommodate his tall frame), helping Ralph navigate the route. Despite living in Keizer for over seven decades, Ralph says he still doesn’t have the city’s roads committed to memory.

“You’d think I would, but they keep changing the streets!” he says, laughing.

Another thing that’s changed in the past few years is the need for Meals on Wheels home delivery. Before the pandemic, there were approximately 40 home-delivery routes serving about 450 homebound seniors and adults with disabilities every day. Now, there are 60 routes serving about 725 individuals every day, and that demand isn’t likely to subside. Thankfully, committed volunteers like Ralph and Curt are there to help fill the need.

Ralph and Curt, his son-in-law, deliver Meals on Wheels in Keizer. 

While out for deliveries on a recent Thursday afternoon, Curt and Ralph refer to the clients on their route with a sense of warm familiarity. There’s the daytime napper whose doorbell shouldn’t be rung, the gal with the friendly dog, and the woman who used to tour the country on a motorcycle. Ralph doesn’t usually get out of the driver’s seat, but he still enjoys greeting clients with a friendly wave while Curt is handing them meals at the door.

Those connections are part of what keeps Ralph coming back week after week.

“It grows on you,” Ralph says. “I enjoy seeing the people, and it’s kind of a feel-good thing, you know?”

He’s been delivering on Thursdays for so long that he plans his week around the volunteer shifts. Everyone from his family to the schedulers at his doctors’ offices know not to book his time on Thursdays, and he doesn’t have any plans to stop anytime soon. The fact that he’s older than many of the folks he’s delivering to isn’t something that crosses Ralph’s mind.

“With most people, you don’t get into that,” he says. “They get their meal and that’s the main thing. I don’t think they care how old you are when you bring it.”

Volunteers help keep our programs moving. Thank you!

Checkout KATU News’ story on Ralph below or read it here.