Featured in The Daily Memphian
By Jill Johnson Piper
When “Tuesday Phil” and “Tuesday Bill” are in the house, no one goes hungry for food or for song.
Every Tuesday morning, Phil Taylor, 84, and Bill Craddock, 73, load up Craddock’s SUV with 17 meals for homebound clients of MIFA’s Meals on Wheels program.
Taylor’s been known to deliver a few verses of the American songbook with the entree. Snow flurries encourage them to load up fast on a recent Tuesday, and they have a lot of ground to cover in Glenview, the neighborhood between Central Gardens and South Parkway East.
Taylor’s feeling musical today as he stops to deliver Irene M’s lunch: a hamburger, baked beans and applesauce.
“I just walk around pretending I’m Frank Sinatra,” Taylor quipped. Irene is dressed in a red velveteen tracksuit. At first, she doesn’t recognize the lyrics made famous by Lead Belly and later The Weavers: “Stop your rambling and stop your gambling/Quit staying out late at night/Go home to your wife and your family/Sit down by a fireside bright.”
It seems a curious serenade for a 98-year-old woman who’s had knee and hip replacements until he gets to the chorus, and Irene’s face lights up: “Irene, goodnight, Irene, goodnight. Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene, I’ll see you in my dreams.” Taylor’s tenor voice sounds bright in the vestibule crowded with Christmas decorations and family photos. Range-wise, he’s closer to Fred Astaire than Frank Sinatra, but for a man who’s never sung in a choir or a nightclub, he’s surprisingly skilled.
Singing meal delivery “just kind of came up one day,” Taylor said, when he and Craddock called on a client named Ruby. “I sang ‘I got a gal and Ruby is her name,’ and she pretended to enjoy it,” Taylor recalls.
Craddock explains their mission a little further: “This is all about relationships, not meals,” he said. “The meal is a vehicle for relationship.”
Taylor and Craddock have been driving together since 2015. They pick up their coolers from MIFA at 910 Vance about 9:30 a.m. along with a computer printout listing everyone who gets a lunch. The list indicates whether the person requires extra time to come to the door, has a caregiver, or lives in a complex that requires a gate code. Some accept their meals with few words; others love to visit. This pair has been driving the same route so long, they have developed nicknames for many of the clients.
Willie C., or “Stone Man” as the team calls him, lives in a house with a stone facade. Outside, it resembles the neighboring bungalows from Glenview’s heyday in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Inside, it’s contemporary and minimalist. He’s clearly in the “loves to visit” camp.
“I love y'all, I think you know it, too,” Stone Man says. He’s recovering from a stubborn infection following a gunshot wound that required three hospitalizations. A retired worker from the City of Memphis Animal Services, Stone Man loved to hunt the woods for fox, rabbit and squirrel. In high school, he ran the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds.
His favorite Christmas song is “Silent Night,” but Phil suggests something more upbeat: “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” Phil croons, and after hugs all around, it’s back in the car to finish the route.
Taylor retired after 40 years as a stock and bond broker with Morgan Keegan. “This has added such a rich dimension to my life personally,” he said. “The ability to give back, getting to know the people and to care about them, it gives me purpose.”
Taylor and Craddock are just two of the 80 volunteers who deliver meals each day Monday through Friday to 1,200 homebound seniors. Drivers have one to two hours to deliver 10 to 15 meals. MIFA distributes almost half a million meals in a year’s time, between deliveries and congregate sites.
Meals on Wheels has been helping people stay in their homes since 1976, said Sally Jones Heinz, president and CEO of MIFA.
Recruiting 400 volunteers a week is part science, part attraction. Angela Scott, the volunteer supervisor, greets drivers, monitors the spreadsheet that follows all the activity for the day and the completed deliveries. Through a combination of individuals and teams, MIFA covers 36 routes in 37 distinct neighborhoods, some as far from the MIFA kitchen as Collierville and Lakeland.
Volunteers, many of them seniors themselves, make ideal drivers because the morning route can be done before lunch and the rest of their day is free. Shep Tate delivered until he was 95 and his grandson did the driving, Heinz said. A younger driver, a 45-year-old man, recently reported that after a year on his route, he was starting to get hugs.
Often, church congregations will take a route and create a team, so that each person might only drive once a month or every other month, depending on the size of the team. A recent development is the formation of corporate teams like those from nexAir and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
Seasoned drivers may bring their own coolers (one for hot foods, one for cold) and use the MIFA phone app to report the deliveries completed, particularly those who deliver to clients as far as Whitehaven or Bartlett. Then they don’t have to return coolers to MIFA’s hub Downtown. That shortens the trip, and volunteers are liking that, Heinz said.
Winters bring some challenges for Meals on Wheels, as some of the volunteer drivers feel nervous about braving icy conditions. When snow or ice are in the forecast, MIFA will send a frozen meal or a “shelf stable” meal with the regular delivery so that clients have something in the pantry.
Even Christmas Day is regular delivery day, and clients may find toothpaste, gloves and puzzles along with their dinner. “It’s become a tradition for a lot of families to put everybody in the car and do that delivery on Christmas morning,” Heinz said. “People love it.”