Tuesday, February 09, 1999

Soup kitchen volunteer served up kindness




BY MARK CURNUTTE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lillie Mae Davenport lived barely above poverty, but she never stopped trying to help other people. Almost every day for 20 years, she volunteered in the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen and served meals to 300 people a day.

        Miss Davenport died of stomach cancer Thursday, three days after her 82nd birthday. Even in death, she kept sharing. She left one of her two small life insurance policies, valued at $1,500, to her hairdresser's granddaughter.

        “She ... loved her,” the girl's mother, Donese Hollis, 42, said Monday at Miss Davenport's funeral. “Every time she got a good report card, or at Christmas, (she) always tried to give her something. I'd say, "No, no, Lillie Mae, you don't have to do that,' but she did it anyway.”

        Ms. Hollis and her daughter, Chanel Hollis, 16, were two of 20 mourners at services.

        The others knew Miss Davenport from the soup kitchen, where she was known for scolding people for taking too many napkins and always had a treat — a piece of candy or, sometimes, a stuffed animal — for children.

        “The spiritual gift Lillie gave to us was her ability to persevere through all the negatives in her life,” the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter said during the memorial at Schaefer & Busby Funeral Home downtown. He founded the soup kitchen in 1976, and Miss Davenport was one of the first volunteers.

        “She was able to empathize with people,” the Catholic priest said.

        And inspire.

        Earl Bolden, 47, of Over-the-Rhine became a kitchen volunteer after meeting Miss Davenport.

        “She was like a momma to me,” he said.

        Friends — both neighbors and volunteers from the soup kitchen — put pieces of Miss

        Davenport's life together during the last few weeks.

        Four women — Ms. Hollis and three associated with the soup kitchen — met for lunch Jan. 29 to plan Miss Davenport's funeral when it became clear she would not live.

        She had been in a Clifton nursing home since the first of the year.

        Ms. Hollis declined to take Miss Davenport's insurance money for her daughter. The death benefit, and $1,000 from Miss Davenport's second policy, would be used for funeral expenses.

        That decided, the women then compared notes.

        Miss Davenport was born Feb. 1, 1917, in Bowling Green, Ky. She had one brother, now deceased, and a step-sister, also believed to be dead. She was married but widowed long ago. She had no children.

        She had worked as a domestic for a doctor in Cincinnati. She traveled with his family to Wisconsin and Niagara Falls and cared for the family's son, who had polio.

        “It never seemed right that a woman who loved children so much didn't have any of her own,” said Mary Ellen Kujawa, 60, manager of the Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills kitchens. “The kitchen was her family. It gave her a place to be.”

        Miss Davenport met her partner of 20 years, Walter “Kojak” Gaffney, but never married him because they couldn't afford to lose their individual Social Security benefits. Together, they shaped the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen in their likeness.

        “Tough and tender at the same time,” said Beverly Swaile, 33, an assistant professor of chemical technology at the University of Cincinnati and a longtime Over-the-Rhine Kitchen volunteer.

        Miss Davenport and Mr. Gaffney knew everyone in the neighborhood.

        “One plate,” they'd say from the serving line if someone tried to take two plates of food.

        At the same time, if a woman came to the kitchen without her husband and they found out he was ill, she would leave with an extra plate for him. Sometimes they'd deliver the food themselves.

        Mr. Gaffney, 20 years her junior, adored Miss Davenport.

        “His eyes truly sparkled when he saw her,” Ms. Swaile said.

        Sally Karl, 56, is a former kitchen manager.

        “I held onto Lillie Mae because I thought she had no one else,” Ms. Karl said. “Then I learned a lot of people were holding onto her after Kojak died.”

        Even as she lay dying in the nursing home, Miss Davenport talked of getting back to her life in Over-the-Rhine. And a big part of that life was baking pies. If you knew Miss Davenport, you regularly received pies — apple, cherry and her specialty, sweet potato. She baked them in the kitchen of her tidy McMicken Avenue apartment.

        “She said, "When I feel better, I got to get you a pie,'” said Clara Fambro, a kitchen volunteer from Walnut Hills.

        Miss Davenport was buried at Wesleyan Cemetery in Northside. Friends gathered afterward at the Over-the-Rhine Kitchen on Back Street. There were rolls, ham, fried chicken and macaroni salad.

        And slices of donated pie.

        Leah Regina Smith of Over-the-Rhine has been a kitchen volunteer for six years.

        “We're all going to miss her sweet potato pie,” she said.

       



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