May Plennert spent most of the last decade of her 65-year marriage taking care of her husband, Nicholas. He suffered a series of strokes and then withered away with Alzheimer's.
When Nicholas died in 1998, Mrs. Plennert moved into La Casa Grande retirement home in New Port Richey. For the first time in ages, she had time to read or work on her poetry. Life as a caretaker had been hard.
Still, from the moment she arrived at the home, she made it a point every day to stroll down to the Alzheimer's wing. Old, frail men and women peered through the gate. Mrs. Plennert gently touched their hands and smiled, addressing each of them by name.
Nobody knew better than she the heartbreak of the disease that destroys memory. She remained grateful for her own good health, her own sharp mind. At 90, she could still recall details of her early childhood, when her Scottish grandmother taught her the hymns and traditions of the Salvation Army and this particular saying: "No matter where you go, brighten a corner.''
May Plennert brightened many a corner.
One day in October 2000, Mrs. Plennert invited me to the home for a visit. She had just been presented the Salvation Army's top award for volunteer service. The William Booth Award is named in honor of the Methodist minister who founded the Salvation Army in 1865 in London.
Mrs. Plennert wore a summer dress and pearls. She shared her poetry and essays, and I marveled at her meticulous handwriting. She beamed as she talked of Nicholas, who could build anything, and the four children they had together. And then she walked over to the corner of the living room and picked up a 15-pound bronze statuette that resembled an Oscar.
"It would make a good doorstop,'' she said with a laugh.
Not that she wasn't proud of this award. Anything that said Salvation Army ranked high on her favorites list.
In 1952, the Plennerts moved from New Jersey to New Port Richey so they could look after her father, recently widowed. Two years later, Mrs. Plennert opened the Salvation Army's first service unit in West Pasco, collecting and distributing food and clothing to poor people from the front porch of her home on North River Road.
That fledgling charity holds little resemblance to the Salvation Army's dynamic presence in West Pasco today. It provides emergency services, shelter to abused women and children, food and clothing for the poor, day care and sports programs.
But right up to last week, if you asked any oldtimer in the New Port Richey area who most personified the local Salvation Army, they would answer quickly with two words: May Plennert. She served in various capacities over the years, but her volunteer spirit broadened well beyond the Salvation Army. She helped the American Red Cross, served as a PTA president, elections poll worker, announcer and scorekeeper for the West Pasco Little League. And she helped her daughter Ellen Holeman, an elementary school teacher.
Last Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Holeman visited her mother at Consulate Health Care in New Port Richey. Mrs. Plennert's mind remained sharp, but her body was failing. She had stopped eating a week earlier and on Friday (March 12, 2010), she quietly slipped away. She would have been 100 on July 1.
As family and friends gathered for a service Tuesday afternoon at Michels & Lundquist Funeral Home, Mrs. Holeman summed up her mother's philosophy, which the family had heard her proclaim time and again over the years. It also happens to best describe the mission of the Salvation Army:
"Heart to God, and hand to man.''