Bernon Ward, once homeless, had been mainstay in First Presbyterian kitchen
Vernon Ward, whose onetime need of charity bred in him a lasting commitment of service to others, won’t be part of a cornerstone Thanksgiving tradition in Boulder today for the first time in years.
But Ward’s example will inspire many others as they carry on a custom of giving that has helped shape an ongoing mission at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Boulder.
Ward, a formerly homeless man who became head chef for many events over the years at First Presbyterian, was the driving force in staging the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner for the those with nowhere else to go. He died June 7 at his home in Boulder after a battle with cancer. He was 60.
The holiday dinner will go forward once again this year, warming the spirits and sating the hunger of more than 300 who are expected to attend.
“My big stress point is, how do I replace him?” said Deacon Mark Culver, who will be acting as kitchen czar this Thanksgiving. “Some big shoes to fill.”
Thanksgiving wasn’t the only meal of the year for which Ward was in command.
“When I say ‘cooked,'” Cartwright said, “it was always that he was leading volunteers. He was very good at utilizing volunteers to do that as well. He had a way of doing that that was winsome.”
Cartwright elaborated, “People enjoyed working with him. He was an outgoing person, and he had a wonderful sense of humor and he could put people at ease. He was very good at giving directions and dividing up responsibilities.
“Vernon has left huge holes to fill for our church in our outreach to the less fortunate.”
‘Now, I do it because I want to’
Ward, a U.S. Army veteran, found himself in the 1990s living on the streets of Denver. His daughter had threatened to no longer allow him to see his grandchildren, due to his substance abuse problems.
He had to fall back on charity himself. And in a 2012 interview with the Camera, he spoke of resenting the attitude with which it was sometimes bestowed.
“I’m not being ungrateful, but it was horrible,” Ward had recalled. “It was like, ‘Here’s your peanut butter and jelly. Now, get on down the road. Either way, I’m going home, ’cause I’ve got a family. I’ve got a paycheck.'”
Ward’s incentive to help out in the First Presbyterian kitchen was in part fueled by a need to shake a depression that was a legacy of time spent on the streets, a divorce and emphysema caused by years of breathing noxious fumes while doing auto-body work.
He had also battled the ravages of past drug and alcohol dependency.
First Presbyterian proved a life-saver, his sister Cathy Williams of Denver said. She had been fighting for years to save him, but as long as he was exposed to the “riff-raff” around him in Denver, she said, it was a losing battle.
“They turned him into a different person. They really did,” she said. “With the drinking and the drugs. Once he got involved with the church and stuff, he was back to the old Vernon.”
He jumped in with both feet. “First, I did it because I had to,” Ward said. “Now, I do it because I want to.”
Bringing his culinary expertise to the First Presbyterian kitchen became Ward’s passion. Williams is now Ward’s only surviving sibling. He also had five brothers.
“He loved that church,” Williams said last week. “He’d get mad and fuss. But he loved the people down there. And they loved him.”
Scared — but ready
Ward’s spirit was very much with the First Presbyterian community as they prepared for this Thanksgiving. But on turkey day, his memory will be underscored by the presence of his sister, and her five children, as they planned to pitch in as volunteers for the massive feast.
“Me and my family are planning to come down and help serve Thanksgiving dinner,” Williams said, “to thank them for so much, for all they did for him.”
Veterans of the church’s Thanksgiving spread said that in the kitchen, at least, they didn’t have much choice.
“In the past, when he was kind of running the kitchen, we all just sort of showed up and deferred to him,” Deacon Culver said. “He knew how to run an industrial kitchen. He came from the streets and he’d worked with homeless people.”
Now, Culver added, “I think everybody is going to defer to me -— and that’s kind of a scary idea. But I’m ready for it.”
“Ready” will include 31 turkeys, purchased and delivered by members of the church choir. Also, 120 pounds of sweet potatoes. Similarly prodigious quantities of every trimming imaginable are on hand, capped off by Ward’s special-recipe gravy.
Roughly 35 tables of diners will be turned over several times. Those enjoying the offering will be served where they sit rather than using a buffet-style approach. Nearly 80 volunteers will make it all work.
Ward was in the kitchen last year, giving orders, despite being very sick with cancer and having to take frequent breaks. Today, he’s in the kitchen still — in spirit, but also memorialized with a plaque featuring his photograph.
His sister said, “They’ll be missing him, his bossing everyone around. He was a character.
“And,” Williams said, “I miss him so much.”