Pay it forward

Two years ago, Kenny resident Karen Hall decided she wanted to be a "Soup Lady."

It began when her father was diagnosed with colon cancer, she said. While thinking about his future — and the stress and heartache that her mother could face during his treatment — it came to her.

"I could be the "Soup Lady" for others in the same situation," she said. "I could make homemade soup and deliver it."

The opportunity came in the fall of 2000 when she met Gary Hoover in Kenny Park. She learned that Gary’s wife, Mary Ellyn, had lived with multiple sclerosis (MS) for almost 40 years and had been wheelchair-bound for more than 15 years.

After the meeting, she said she lay awake that night unable to fall asleep. She wanted to do something for the Hoovers and reach out in some way.

She decided to make them soup.

That gesture would have its own reward, opening her world to a Southwest love story.

"I couldn’t help but fall in love with them," said Hall, a thirty-something copywriter with two young children. "As a couple, they share such a deep commitment and a puppy-love affection for one another. They really are sweethearts. Never have I heard a complaint from either one of them about their situation. Never bitter. Never resentful. They are filled with joy for all the blessings they have."

Reaching out Hall said she really wanted to focus on the needs not only of the person being cared for, but the caregiver as well.

"Soup seemed like the perfect choice," she said. "Soup is nurturing, soup is easy to serve. You just pull it out, plop it in a bowl and put it in a microwave."

Hall went to the park the next day because she knew Gary would be there with his grandchildren, she said. When she saw him, they exchanged ‘hellos’, but Hall said she felt a little nervous about reaching out.

Later that day, she said she decided to send Gary and Mary Ellyn a note:

Dear Gary, I wanted to drop you a note and tell you that I really enjoyed meeting and talking with you last week at Kenny Park. It’s always nice to meet such a friendly neighbor!

I also wanted to ask your opinion on an ‘idea’ I’ve been tossing around for a few months now. You see, I love to cook and I love to reach out to others. So, my idea is to offer a free service to those who are primarily homebound and those who care for them.

I’d be the ‘Soup Lady’ and I’d deliver a big pot of tasty homemade soup and a loaf of bread every other week or so.

After we met, the lightbulb went on…I’d love it if you and your wife would let me do this for you! My plan was to get names from our church, but it sure would be nice for me to start with a family I’ve already met.

So, what do you think?

Do you and your wife like homemade soup? I’d sure love to bring you some!

Your Friend, Karen Hall

A nervous beginning Gary called the day he received the letter and enthusiastically accepted her offer, Hall said. Turns out that Mary Ellyn herself was the "Soup Lady" in the neighborhood years ago.

Hall said she was nervous about meeting Mary Ellyn the first time she brought over soup because she didn’t know what to expect.

"I was scared," she said. "I had no concept of who she was other than that she was married to this wonderful man and was in the late stages of MS."

Hall said her fears were unfounded.

"When I met Mary Ellyn, it was as if

I already knew her," said Hall. "She was so touched that someone was going to make soup for her. We shared a big hug that seemed to say, ‘Well, here you are. I’ve been waiting for you.’

"I didn’t expect to fall so much in love with Mary Ellyn."

Hall has been making soup — tomato bacon, chicken wild rice, squash — for the Hoovers two times a month since that day in Kenny Park.

A couple of weeks ago, the Southwest Journal received a letter from Hall recounting their story and revealing that in January of this year, Mary Ellyn was diagnosed with cancer.

"My hope is that you will tell our story," Hall wrote at the end of the letter. "It would be such a wonderful gift for my dear friends, the Hoovers.

"Their love is a higher love."

A blind date Gary is a jovial, talkative man, who puts at ease those who come to his and Mary Ellyn’s modest Kenny home.

Gary walks through the living room to the kitchen, pointing out the big hospital bed (Mary Ellyn’s hospital bed is actually two beds pushed together, Gary says, so he can be next to her) and Hoyer Lift that he uses to get Mary Ellyn in and out of her wheelchair.

Mary Ellyn is seated at the kitchen table in her wheelchair, exuding a warmth and humor that fills

the room.

Although she lost her speech after a bad MS attack last year, it is slowly coming back — halting, but clear.

Within minutes, Mary Ellyn and Gary, who have been married for more than 45 years, were describing and laughing about their first date 48 years ago.

"It was a blind date," said Gary, who grew up in South Minneapolis. "I was 19, she was 18. I had never seen her, although she had seen a picture of me. I gave her a call, and we giggled and laughed. I had my first fraternity party at the University of Minnesota coming up, and so I said, ‘I’d like to take you.’"

Mary Ellyn agreed, and Gary said he drove from Minneapolis to her house in Richfield. "Back then in 1953," he laughed, "that was like driving out to the country."

When Gary got to the door, he said, somebody whom he presumed was Mary Ellyn’s mother greeted him.

"I asked if Mary Ellyn was home, and this woman says that she was Mary Ellyn," he said with a look of horror. "I thought, ‘My God, I’m taking this old woman to my fraternity party.’"

Gary said he heard someone giggling behind the door and out stepped Mary Ellyn.

First impressions?

"She was a real catch for me," he said.

"And, I was so thrilled with him," said Mary Ellyn. "He really had me."

"Well, I had hair then," Gary joked as he ran his hands over his bare scalp.

After the party, Gary said he drove Mary Ellyn home and the two sat in the car in front of her house. "You know, we came back and hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, and then we kissed."

"We knew right away," said Mary Ellyn.

After dating for two and a half years — he kept a log of every single date

and she took more than 2,500 slides — Gary and Mary Ellyn got married on June 23, 1956 at Assumption Catholic Church in Richfield.

The diagnosis Mary Ellyn was 30 years old when she was diagnosed with MS in 1964, after the birth of the last of her three children. She said she felt numb over one side of her body, and she lost sight in both eyes temporarily.

Gary said that she would sometimes lose speech when she talked on the phone.

Neither Gary nor Mary Ellyn really knew what the MS diagnosis meant, they said.

"I was devastated," said Gary. "She took it much better than I did. I thought it was the end of the world. Here she is, 30 years old, with three babies, and she has MS."

In retrospect, the experience was a "true test of love," he said.

"We had this wonderful life, and for a while I thought it would go to pot," he said. "But, if you really love somebody, you are going to fight for them."

So, where does Mary Ellyn derive her strength?

"Gary," she said, looking at him tenderly. "He’s a real honey, you know."

Gary said that he thinks the single most important quality in any marriage is fidelity.

"If you don’t have fidelity, you don’t have anything. Anybody that cheats has a second-hand marriage," he said.

Mention Bill Clinton, and both Mary Ellyn and Gary widen their eyes and groan.

"The things we’ve had to go through in life," added Mary Ellyn, "we never would have made it if we didn’t have this closeness. Fidelity is the core of our lives."

Rest, then go get ’em Gary said that he and Mary Ellyn work on a two-day cycle. "Mary Ellyn can’t do two days in a row, so we have a rest day and a go-get-’em day," Gary said. "On our days out, we go see movies, take a drive, go out to eat."

For 20 years, Gary has given Mary Ellyn her cortisone shots, still the only treatment for MS, he said.

Twice a week, he gives her a sponge bath on the hospital bed. He also helps her go to the bathroom.

On this day, anticipating a photographer, Gary has put a wig on Mary Ellyn (she lost her hair during cancer treatment) and has even applied makeup.

In order to get Mary Ellyn in and out of the bed, Gary uses the Hoyer Lift, a large metal contraption that looks like a pair of welded coat racks.

"I tell Mary Ellyn it’s just like at the Valley Fair," he said, as Mary Ellyn rolls her eyes and laughs.

The Hoovers’ life is filled with their six grandchildren; two live nearby in Wabasha. "We try and drive there every week," Gary said.

A way with soup Gary took an early retirement from Kraft in 1992, where he worked for more than 30 years, so he could stay at home full-time with Mary Ellyn.

They can’t fly anymore, but they still take road trips. They drove cross-country to visit their son — and the four other grandchildren — in Texas. They are also planning a road trip to Canada this summer.

"We’ll have to see what happens with the cancer," said Gary.

Gary cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"One day, I cook a big breakfast," he said. "I’ll make a cheese and mushroom omelet, sausage links, bacon, juice, cantaloupe, toast and coffee. The next day, we’ll have cereal."

Mary Ellyn and Gary said that Karen Hall’s soup is always a part of their lunch.

"Karen has a way with soup," said Mary Ellyn, who added that when she was first diagnosed with MS, she used to stay up all night making soup because she couldn’t sleep.

"I really miss making soup," she said. "But, there’s just something about Karen’s soup. It’s terrific."

A bowl of Hall’s tomato bacon soup before her, Mary Ellyn smiled and said, "I always look at Karen as my little angel."

For Hall, the entire friendship has taught her that people should overcome their fears and reach out more.

"The whole deal is to help out," she said. "It was scary to me at first, but I just feel like there’s something bigger than me telling me that I have to do this.

"And, Mary Ellyn and Gary just fill your heart."