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Solon Senior Dining celebrates 40 years

Countless volunteers have carried the cause for Old Gold Diner

SOLON– They list off the names.
Rosemary Erenberger, Peg Zaruba, Naomi Steinbrech, Jeanne Erhart, Bev Noska, Irene Steinbrech, Elaine Reynolds, Marie Kroul, Bessie Drahos and Doris Looney, Wayne Croy, Betty Buchmayer, Milt Hunt, Elieen Hageman, Anna McAtee.
It’s not complete by any means– there’s a long list of people who helped keep Solon’s Senior Dining program alive since its creation in 1980.
From the early days, when the diners cooked their own food, to the last seven years, operating locally without federal or state funding, the Solon congregate meal site has survived four decades and still provides nutritious meals and social interaction targeted at the area’s older population.
The Old Gold Diner celebrates the anniversary with an open house Thursday, April 2, but will also be honoring longtime volunteer organizer Anna McAtee with a birthday party Friday, Jan. 31.
A special menu and birthday cake will be sponsored that day by the Old Gold Diner Site Council, Solon Senior Advocates and Solon Senior Support. Reservations are due Wednesday, Jan. 29, by 1 p.m. Those attending are encouraged to bring birthday cards, photos and memories to share. Cards may also be mailed to McAtee at Solon Retirement Village, 523 E. 5th Street, Solon.
“There were many, many people that contributed in a major way,” noted Art Tellin, former president of the site council. Tellin has been attending the Old Gold Diner since 2009. But most impactful has been McAtee, he said.
“During those years, Anna was the power behind the throne,” he said. “No matter who was site manager, it was Anna who kept all the details and kept everybody on course.”
Tellin and other members of the site council– Sandy Hanson, Jill Weetman, Marcy Olson, Phyllis Fiala, Penny Atkinson, Jeanne Erhart, Jon Lorence, Barry Byrne, Larry Meister and current site manager Joanne Malley– visited about the organization’s history prior to a regular meeting Jan. 13.
Tellin’s first visit to Solon Senior Dining was with Beverly Whetstine, who recently lost her husband Jim. Tellin’s father attended senior dining after his wife died, and so he suggested they check it out.
“So we showed up,” he said. “We didn’t know you had to call ahead. We didn’t know anything about it, except this was the place dad had come.”
There was a table of regulars, but they soon learned everyone hadn’t shown up yet.
The two found a place at a table, but as soon as they sat down, Jack Beranek said, “You can’t sit there.”
Tellin apologized.
“That’s where Herman Stout sits,” Beranek noted.
“I soon learned the pecking order,” Tellin said.
But the group included the newcomers and found them food.
Whetstine then recognized McAtee and Noska and it wasn’t long before she felt it was a place she could return, Tellin observed.
McAtee always had a joke for each day, she called bingo, kept the group’s financial records and was involved in every aspect, he said.
“She was a remarkable contributor to the success of Old Gold Dining,” he added.
The meal site officially opened April 2, 1980, in the Solon United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, which was built the previous year. It has remained at the same location since.
Meals were cooked on-site.
“At that time, all the people that ate just went in the kitchen and did what they had to do to help,” Jeanne Erhart said. “Now it’s a whole different story.”
Early on, she said, McAtee established a food supply with the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) and later the site was governed by Heritage Area Agency on Aging, later The Heritage Agency, and regional non-profit Elder Services, which funneled funds from the Older Americans Act to the program and provided a site manager.
By the time Sandy Hanson started attending in 2005, volunteers were driving down to the Iowa City Senior Center every day to pick up cambros of food and returning them to the Solon site.
Just three years earlier, Solon Senior Advocates formed to purchase a mini-bus with money from Bessie Drahos and Doris Looney to transport seniors after county SEATS service scaled back from five days a week.
On Hanson’s first day as a delivery driver, Looney was riding shotgun, and supplied Hanson with the area’s historical information as they drove across the countryside.
“I kind of got to know the neighborhood in one fell swoop,” Hanson said.
When the need for the bus service dwindled, the Advocates regrouped in support of the dining program.
In 2007, she said, a new quota of 20 people a day was put in place for the meal site, difficult with five meals a week.
“As you can see with four on Monday, that’s pretty hard to do,” Hanson added. “I think it’s remarkable that we have meals Monday through Friday, when many other places are just once a week.”
In response, Advocates president Wayne Croy came up with the idea for one free meal a month sponsored by area businesses and organizations.
The turnout, she said, was “amazing.”
The sponsored meals drew from 40-60 people, with a high of 98 one month, not including carryouts.
But the biggest challenge came in 2012, when Heritage and Elder Services announced a new round of cutbacks.
Due to a budget crunch, the decision had been made to eliminate the Solon site manager, and while food would still be provided, it would come in “Oliver” packaging, similar to a TV dinner.
“Very meager amounts and nobody liked it,” Tellin said. “We were all pampered by having food cooked and supplied in pans and we could dish it up ourselves.”
The local congregate meal site began to lose attendance.
“By the time it got here, I remember going to Iowa City to pick up the meals, once they were in the Olivers, it was cold, and I had a lot of complaints.” Marcy Olson recalled.
Larry Meister spearheaded going to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to ask for funding for the site manager, Hanson said. The county agreed to pay half if the City of Solon would pay the other half.
Meanwhile, the Olivers were still problematic, she noted.
Tellin approached the Solon Nursing Care Center, now Solon Retirement Village, regarding meal preparation and it turned out both entities were thinking the same thing.
The care center began providing meals locally, and although the county dropped out, the city maintained its commitment and the site manager salary was supplemented by donations from local non-profits, including the Solon Area Community Foundation, the Solon Beef Days Committee, and now the Optimist Club of Solon
For the last seven years, Tellin noted, the care center has provided the meals at cost.
“It’s due to their generosity that we’ve been able to continue this very fine service to the community,” he said.
Meat loaf, roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy are the favorites, although Phyllis Fiala voted for the pork and sauerkraut.
“We didn’t have enough sauerkraut the first time,” she said. “They didn’t realize there were a bunch of Bohemies here, and Germans.”
And there’s always a dessert with every meal.
“They do an excellent job,” Erhart added.
Things are running pretty smoothly at the Old Gold Diner, the moniker adopted after the split with Heritage. Old Gold provided 5,450 meals to the community in 2019.
Hanson said Malley is a wonderful site manager and attendance is good for the sponsored meals, which feature an annual Medicare overview with Rick Jedlicka, Jay Proffitt’s stumpfiddle performance in December, and regular support from businesses like Mercy Family Medicine of Solon and South Slope Cooperative Communications Company.
“The people that are coming enjoy coming here,” Malley observed. “It’s just a joy to be here with them.”
“We solve a lot of problems on Monday,” Fiala added.
And they play a lot of cards Friday.
Card games and bingo are offered twice a week, birthdays are celebrated once a month and the Visiting Nurse Association shows up once a month for a foot clinic.
But regular attendance isn’t as good as site council members would like it to be.
Monthly live entertainment draws a good crowd, and visits from fourth graders are well attended, but keeping the numbers up is always a challenge.
The site council members encourage seniors to join for a meal, but everyone is welcome and meals can also be delivered within a five-mile radius or carried out.
“When I started we were up to sometimes 20 (deliveries),” Olson pointed out. “But now it’s gone down to maybe nine.”
Since separating from Heritage and Elder Services, the site council has much more local control of the program, Hanson said, and is hoping to lure more people with a welcoming atmosphere.
“Now we really run this as a community funded thing,” she added. “If we could just get more community here, we’d be a lot better off.”

Old Gold Diner
Solon United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, 122 N. West Street, Solon.
Meals are $4 and served Monday-through Friday, 11:30 a.m. (Reservations are needed by 1 p.m. the day before).
Call 319-624-2251 to make a reservation.

The Old Gold Diner Site Council would like to say thank you to the individual donors and the following Solon businesses and organizations for 2019 contributions:
City of Solon and the Solon City Council, Bridge Community Bank, Solon Centennial Lions Club, Thrivent Action Team, Solon Economist, Solon Retirement Village, and the Optimist Club of Solon and Solon Senior Advocates.