Two dishing it right back

Wednesday, November 25, 1998

Stop by the City Gospel Mission tonight and you'll find Smokey and Ed up to their elbows in dressing.

Working steadily into the night, the gray-haired men will stand side by side and talk over old times while chopping 40 loaves of bread into tiny nibble-sized pieces. That's one loaf for every year they've made and served the dressing at the mission's Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless.

I've always admired people like Smokey and Ed. Giving up a holiday to serve the needy demands a mighty faith.

But I've often wondered about them, too. My favorite place to be on Thanksgiving is home. Smokey and Ed are away from home from early in the morning until late afternoon. But, they don't regret missing 40 years of Macy's parades and Detroit Lions football games.

"It's not a matter of missing these things," Ed told me while standing by a stainless steel table in the Over-the-Rhine mission's basement kitchen. "It's a matter of need. These people need help."

And, Ed and Smokey need to pay off old debts of gratitude by cooking for Thanksgiving.

The two old friends don't work at the mission for money or recognition.

"Some years in the beginning, we paid for everything out of our own pockets," Smokey said as he stacked the four, 10-gallon pots he and Ed will fill with turkey dressing. "This year, with the donations we've received, we'll only have to spend about $100 apiece."

At the mission, everyone just calls them Smokey and Ed. "Ninety percent of the people here," Ed said, "don't even know my last name." It's Knippenberg. Smokey's name is Willard Walton.

"Both of us came from very poor backgrounds," Ed added. "This is our chance to pay back the people who helped us."

"We do this," Smokey said, "out of love."

Thankful memories

When he works at the mission, Smokey remembers his widowed mother. She worked in a paper bag factory. Making only $4.95 a week, she managed to fill their Thanksgiving table with food and their small apartment with love.

Ed honors an old boss. Ves Kemper, a butcher, loaned him money to buy a house. "And then gave me a 25-cent-on-the-hour raise."

Smokey and Ed have had successful careers. Smokey made a mint in what he calls "the gumball business," selling gumball and pinball machines as well as video games and jukeboxes. Ed did all right for himself selling real estate.

As good as they have it, each man still remembers where he came from.

"We grew up in the West End," Ed said, lowering his already soft tones at the end of the sentence as if he didn't want anyone to hear where he came from.

"At the time," he added, "we didn't know we were poor."

They thought everybody lived in a third-floor, cold water flat. "The only toilet at my mom's house was on the first floor," Smokey noted. "And we shared that with a restaurant and a barber shop."

No one they knew owned a car or had much money. "We thought we were rich," Ed said, "when we'd park a car at Crosley Field and get a dime."

Smokey left school after the eighth grade. Ed passed through the ninth.

They went to work to help their mothers. Smokey's dad had died when he was seven. Martial troubles split up Ed's parents.

Today, these men would be classified as coming from single-parent homes and living in a disadvantaged neighborhood.

"We didn't feel disadvantaged," Ed said. "Our mothers loved us. We felt special."

Smokey and Ed feel special when they spoon their dressing onto the plates at the mission.

"It's a joy when you see people's needs being ministered to," Ed said.

Serving the dressing makes Smokey's heart beat faster. "At the same time," he added, "I'm overcome with a serene feeling of inner peace. Wonder what that's called?"

Peace, maybe. And, Thanksgiving.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.