CASPER, Wyo. — Elmer Hoke took his time walking across the icy parking lot.
Hoke, 92, carried a disposable tray holding hot pot roast, mashed potatoes and vegetables. A plastic bag dangling from his fingers contained fruit, milk and other food. He gripped a rail with the other hand and walked up the snow-covered steps.
The meal was destined for a man who lived at the top of three flights of stairs. Hoke walked up those stairs and placed the food in a cooler outside the door.
Outside of another apartment, a man stepped out of a doorway as Hoke eased his white Dodge sedan into the parking lot.
“I’ll be darned, I didn’t think they were going to be around today,” the man said, smiling. Hoke handed the packages through the car window to a woman, who passed them to the man.
“We fooled you!” Hoke called, grinning back.
The World War II veteran has volunteered as a driver for Meals on Wheels of Natrona County, Wyoming, for about 20 years. He drives every weekday and logs the most days a year among the volunteers, Meals on Wheels volunteer coordinator Debbie Cardinal said.
He’s always liked to stay busy, he said, and enjoys the people he meets on deliveries and fellow volunteers.
“And I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. You’re bound to,” he said. “You’re out and around. Why sit home and look at four walls?”
Hoke wore a light jacket and high-top leather shoes with thick tread as he delivered food to 10 recipients on a recent Thursday afternoon.
He volunteers at Meals on Wheels every weekday as a substitute driver for those who can’t make it in.
The Casper native’s route for the day made a loop through a neighborhood off the Old Yellowstone Highway. Decades ago, the road was the main route to Yellowstone National Park, he said. At one delivery, he noted an apartment building that once was one of many motels lining the route through Casper. Then came the four-lane interstate.
He pointed a few blocks west down Old Yellowstone to the former Sandbar district, once infamous for its flourishing brothels. He’d helped at a friend’s liquor store there, where clientele included prostitutes.
“Besides the rassel houses, they had apartments, bars, cafes,” he added. One cafe had the best green chili in town, and an eatery called Fanny Bells served its signature fried chicken until the wee hours, he recalled.
Hoke was born in a two-story house that used to be a hospital. His six siblings were all born at home. His parents had emigrated from Germany, and his father worked for the Burlington Railroad. He died of cancer when Hoke was 10.
Hoke started working at a young age to help support the family, and he joined the Navy during World War II before graduating high school. He served on the aircraft carrier Essex in 10 major battles or invasions in the Pacific, he said.
He returned to Casper, married and bought a home for $9,999 in Pineview, the town’s first subdivision. Hoke worked as a welder for Texaco for 35 years before retiring in 1981. Since then, he’s visited Germany and traveled through the U.S. — he’s been everywhere in the south from Florida to San Diego.
He started volunteering for Meals on Wheels about two decades ago. He’s younger than most of the recipients. Everyone will need some help sooner or later, he said. The meals aren’t just for the elderly, but also for those with injuries or illnesses, he added.
“It wouldn’t hurt you a bit I guess to do it in advance when you’re able to do it,” Hoke said. “So you get a kind of a reprieve from it when somebody helps you. Nobody is exempt.”
TIME WITH FRIENDS
Hoke’s last stop of the day was to a man he’s known for decades. They smiled and talked at the doorway of a blue house. Hoke asked about the man’s brother, who lives in a nursing home, and was pleased he was doing all right.
“Yeah, he’s one of my favorites,” he said before leaving the house. “You’re one of my favorites, too.”
Back at the Meals on Wheels center, Hoke talked with several friends over lunch that’s served to the volunteers.
Drivers like Hoke are crucial to deliver meals to those who need them throughout the community, Cardinal said. She enjoys watching him come in every day and visit with the staff and other volunteers.
“He befriends them, talks to them and tells his stories to them. He loves to tell stories,” she said.
They enjoy his stories, too. Fellow volunteer and veteran Hubert Townsend said he asks Hoke about history, whether from his time in World War II or Casper’s past, he said.
The friendships extend beyond Meals on Wheels. Hoke travels to Las Vegas every March to watch basketball with two friends he made volunteering, for instance. The three discovered they were all traveling there alone, as well as to University of Wyoming football and basketball games. Now they go together.
“I think it’s the friends you meet,” Hoke said, “the people you correspond with right at Meals on Wheels.”