ST. PETERSBURG — With a shock of white hair and a dancer's build, Fred Campagna is not a big man. Wearing three bathrobes at once doesn't hide his slightness. Nonetheless, Campagna, 92, is a person of strong opinions. Abandoning the walker festooned with a tiny American flag, he leaned against the kitchen island and made a pronouncement.
Suzanne Kennedy's spaghetti sauce was as good as — nay, better than — his own mother's. And he should know. He's Italian. He has lived at Bay Pines Hospice for three months and has had ample opportunity to scrutinize Kennedy's work. A retired professional chef who lives in Redington Shores, Kennedy, 61, volunteers every Wednesday to cook for hospice residents and their families.
She gets "last supper" requests regularly, memories pulled from deepest childhood that involve sloppy Joes, mac and cheese, meatloaf. She has even accommodated dying veterans who have craved that much-maligned military staple, S.O.S.
• • •
Kennedy calls it the worst September ever. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, her sister-in-law was in the hospital, and her brother-in-law entered Bay Pines Hospice, where he died of congestive heart failure. That was 2011, and by December the former personal chef was volunteering, combing through the donated food and making grocery lists, organizing and shopping for the four other volunteer cooks.
On the first Wednesday of this month, the menu was stuffed shells paired with a green salad, little caprese skewers with basil from Kennedy's garden and one of her secret-weapon desserts: a Waldorf pie with deceptively few ingredients. By 11:15 a.m. the smell of tomato sauce, molten mozzarella and ricotta wafted out to the nurses' station, and Kennedy gently invited the hospice folks to lunch.
Betty Koepnick was there. Her son Bob, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran, had been in hospice for two weeks.
"My son says, 'Mom, be sure you get here for lunch on Wednesday.' He raves about her food," Koepnick says, tilting her head at Kennedy as she dabbed at her eyes with a paper napkin. Bob's not eating much these days, but he likes the idea of his mom having a nice lunch.
For people like Ada Lewis, what the volunteer chefs at Bay Pines Hospice provide is time. She described how, when her husband was sick last year, she never wanted to run out to get something to eat. She didn't want to leave Greg alone, didn't want to risk missing his last moments. So Kennedy and her fellow volunteers stock the fridge with meals the families can nuke.
• • •
When Campagna came in for lunch, Kennedy gave him a big hug. She leaned toward his good ear and recited the day's menu before helping him get a plate of shells.
While he dined he told his story. Started work for Ford Motors at age 14. Drafted, ending World War II in the 1,269th Engineer Combat Battalion, among the first troops to come upon the concentration camp at Dachau, Germany. After that, a hairdresser for 30 years (but in the 1970s he refused to back-comb — he had his standards), then a ballroom dance instructor.
It's a long story. Looking down, his plate is still full, his plastic fork idly skating shells across tomato sauce.
For all of Kennedy's professional chops, for all her carefully vetted recipes, sometimes what she's doing at Bay Pines is not feeding people, but giving them the sights and smells and rituals of one of life's small joys. And sometimes that's enough.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.