To Protect and Serve

Preparation Day

Riverside, Mo. — Scott Stubler, 10 year firefighter, transitioned from part time firefighting to full time and earned a leadership role, fire captain, on the Riverside fire department. Today, he crushes butter crackers in a plastic bag to add to the scallop corn dish: six eggs, one family sized can of creamed corn, a couple scoops of sweet corn and two and a half packages of crushed butter crackers mixed in a disposable aluminum tray.

“I’ve done the cobblers. It’s a mess. But it’s fun because there’s a system,” Stubler said.

Stubler, along with fellow firefighters, police officers, emergency service dispatchers and Riverside administrators crowd the kitchen of the Riverside Community Center. Still on duty, they prepare the annual Riverside seniors holiday dinner. 

“It’s kinda what we do anyway, give back to the community because we’re the fire service and police and everybody at Riverside.” This is Stubler’s 10th year in the kitchen.

Mariah Carrey sings “All I Want for Christmas is You” from a smartphone speaker as background to the five conversations going on at once. 

“Taters done,” fire marshall Keith Payne calls out.

“The brains behind the operation is these two ladies here.” Detective Jessie Winson points toward Candy Gram and Tina Hass. Winson, Glock 22 at his side, handles a tray of deviled eggs, careful to not allow the badge hanging around his neck to touch the lightly seasoned side dish. 

“The first year, we probably had” Candy Gram, emergency communications manager paused to recall, “30, 40 people.” 

“It makes me happy that we can give back to the seniors that have given to us their whole lives. It makes me happy,” Gram said.

Chief of police, Fred McDaniel, Betty Burk, mayor, and Gram started the Riverside seniors holiday dinner in 1988.

“We’ve been doing it so long, we can just sort of do it in our sleep.”

Gram began emergency service dispatching in 1982. She is now in charge of eight full time and one part time dispatcher.

Frank Sinatra croons “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“But I don’t want them all sliced, Scott," Gram calls out. “I don’t think we’re gonna use all that ham.”

Invitations to the dinner go out to senior citizen residents of Riverside and seniors that frequent the Riverside Community Center for classes such as Tai Chi for beginners, silver sneakers Yoga and stay strong stay healthy.

“It’s always fun,” says Doug VanLeeuwen, Riverside police sergeant who has worked the dinner for 16 years. “Especially giving out the gifts after everybody eats.”

Without pause, Nancy Harper, Riverside Community Center receptionist, senior fitness class and line dance instructor, says, “It’s just a very generous city.”

It is dispatcher, Jonna Johnson’s first year helping the make the dinner. It’s also her first time filling deviled eggs. Using a hole cut in a plastic kitchen bag as a piping bag, her decorative technique improves over three trays of eggs.

“My favorite thing is probably the gifts that we put together and the goodie bags,” says Holly Phillips, administrative assistant for the fire department. 

Phillips has been with the city for 12 years. This year she tears loaves of bread to make stuffing. “I look forward to it every year. My grandparents died when I was younger. So, I look forward to this because I have gotten to know the residents over the years.”

Justin Bieber sings “Mistletoe," people talk across the kitchen, dirty dishes clank in the stainless steel three compartment sink. 

“I look at all of these guys as like my children,” Phillips raises her voice to say. The fire chief passes behind her in the narrow isle between the island and the refrigerator. “Even though I am not old enough to be all of their mother.” Two junior firefighters enter the kitchen carrying cans of pie filling. “Could be some.”

Gina Adams, dispatcher, also tears loaves of bread for stuffing. This is her firs seniors dinner. What qualifications are needed in a dispatcher? 

“That’s a Candy Gram kind of question,” Adams says, turning toward her supervisor.

“You need somebody that’s assertive,” Gram replies inspecting hard-boiled eggs.

“Multi tasker,” Payne chimes in from the cutting board. “If you can’t multi task you are not gonna make it.” 

“And handle high stress situations,” says Gina, resuming bread tearing. 

“And crying women,” from the cutting board. 

“And whiney firefighters,” says Gram, looking up from the eggs. 

“Fire marshall,” corrects Payne. 

Keith Payne was a police officer for 15 years before he switched to firefighting ten years ago. He was promoted to fire marshall three years ago.

“You’re a cop because you care about people.” At the cutting board, Payne reaches for another stalk of celery for the stuffing. “You’re a firefighter because you care about people and what to help people.” Chop, chop, chop. “It’s what we do. It’s in your nature.” The waiting celery pile does not seem to diminish no matter how many he cuts. “And if it’s not in your nature, you’re in the wrong line of work.”

John Lennon sings “Happy Xmas” in an echo from the kitchen.

In the hallway firefighters Clayton Seals and Nick Armillio work as a cobbler assembly line duo. Sugar, butter, flour, pie filling. “A couple of ingredients, mix them together. Boom,” says Armillio. The goal is 30 sweet smelling cobblers.

Were there any surprises about being a firefighter, once you get into the job, about what firefighters do? Clayton cocks his head to the side, extends his arms outwards to signal the table full of half filled aluminum trays, a daub of cherry filling clinging to the spatula in his hand. 

Tina Hass, dispatcher and second in command at dinner, walks by. “The secret to the cobbler is to not over mix it.” The cobbler is as much an anticipated item of the meal as the turkey and ham. 

Day of the Lunch

Hass divulges another secret. Gram cooked two turkeys by herself in her home oven. She froze the turkey juices for use as the base of the gravy made back at the Riverside Community Center.

A fire truck, emblazoned with the Park Hill South Panther, parks at the curb. Police cars park in the back facing outward for hasty exit. Firearms on their sides and radios on their hips, several police officers and firefighters are in their dress uniforms, but all are poised to respond to a call. 

Between two man sized nut crackers on the gymnasium stage, Laura Lynch tunes her Easton guitar and limbers her fingers to play jazz music. The city of Riverside is a client of Lynch, owner of Lychpin Ideas, who produces the city newsletter. After playing at the Riverside employee party last month, her live jazz guitar became the popular suggestion for entertainment. 

The dinner begins at noon, but by 11:00 A.M. the first seniors arrived in groups of friends and co-residents of nursing homes. They sat at the black tablecloth covered tables leaning toward each other to move listening ears closer to talking mouths to converse through a jazzy rendition of “Santa Baby.”

Christmas themed sweaters are in style. A man in a vibrant red sweater with a chest sized white snowflake seats his wife at the table. She wears a matching red, stocking themed sweater. Together, they talk with other couples and singles who have gathered at their table. 

It’s loud in the gymnasium; a happy, verbose, vibrant, laughing, cross-the-room-to-see-you loud. Lynch croons “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.”

A woman walks slowly, carefully, to the stage to make a photograph with her smartphone. 

City workers wearing badges, sidearms, tactical pants, shiny captains bars, and radios also wear aprons and serving gloves. They stand behind trays of cheeses, green and black olives, sweet potatoes, stuffing, rolls, scallop corn, ham and turkey. A pair of firefighters roll a cart of drinks, tea and water, around the gymnasium to fill all glasses. 

Officers carry plates to anyone not able to stand in the line wrapping around the room. Two officers advertise cobbler and ice-cream as they push a cart. 

Nova Lorenzen, resident of Riverside since 1986 when tree trimming work brought her and her husband from Iowa, said, “I think that the employees that Riverside has, anywhere from the activities director down to the mayor, they make you feel comfortable.”

“I like a little bit more pop music. They like the little more slow stuff.” Resident Sully Tia explains what brings her to the community center on a regular basis. “They have classes where they learn you how to do the line dance and all that.”

Mayor Kathy Rose handshakes and hugs her way around the room in a Rudolf the red nosed reindeer sweater, often with hugs offered by the seniors. 

“I’ve known all these people since I was this big,” Rose says as she waves her hand by her waste. “So, to see them as they have aged and I have gotten bigger, it’s just wonderful. I love it.” 

Lynch places her guitar in its stand to turn the stage over to the mayor. 

“7-0-9,” the mayor shouts, with a touch of rasp in her voice from joyfully greeting people for an hour. Above the din of talking a hand goes up. “Right back there,” the mayor signals to the closest police officer, laden with gifts: a tin of caramel popcorn, a box of candy, a wrapped cocoa mug. 

Many seniors win a gift. Everyone receives a Christmas themed paper bag of candy and fruit as they leave. A small contingent of bags containing sugar free goodies ensure all can accept an appreciation. 

The DJ plays the familiar Andy Williams “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” a song both about enjoying the moment and looking to the past. The seniors depart under their own power, or guided by family members, or taking a seat on a shuttle going across the city or back to their community residence. 

“You can see the appreciation from the people as they go out, shake my hand, say thank you so much, merry Christmas,” says Art Homer, Ward III alderman. “As a city, we enjoy being able to offer it to everyone.”

In a surprisingly short time the gymnasium is cleaned; Police officers pick up folding chairs, firefighters carry the tables away, dispatchers make quick work of the disposable aluminum food trays. 

Two missed folding chairs lean against the wall. The DJ rolls up the last of his cables and cords. Bing Crosby gently sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Cory MacNeil