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Lunch lady shares her service and compassion for more than 50 years

Published: Sunday, Nov. 4 2012 5:02 p.m. MST

Florence Holtshouser serves guests at the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov.2, 2012. Holtshouser will be honored with Catholic Community Services' Unsung Hero Award for serving homeless people in the soup kitchen for 50 years.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's lunchtime and Florence Holtshouser is working her magic at the counter outside the St. Vincent de Paul dining room kitchen.

She extends a warm greeting to Derwood Marsack, who is shuddering against the cold after waiting outside in a long line for the noon meal.

As she hands him a tray, Florence meets Marsack in the eye, smiles and makes chit-chat about the menu. "The sausage is spicy. If you like spicy, you'll like it."

Still grinning from their interaction, Marsack settles into a seat at a long dining table.

"It's nice to see someone with a smile. She's friendly. She's easy to talk to," he said.

That's just Flo, says Matt Minkevitch, who met Holtshouser when he was working for Catholic Community Services of Utah and she was a volunteer at its soup kitchen.

"She expresses her love for her fellow human beings with such constancy, dedication and sweetness," said Minkevitch, now executive director of The Road Home.

"It's not sweetness like the sugar that rots our teeth, it's a nourishing type of love. It's completely spiritual. She emanates it, she exudes it. That's the source of the sweetness."

Holtshouser, 89, has been a Catholic Community Services volunteer for 50 years. On Wednesday night, CCS will recognize her five decades of service during its annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner. Holtshouser will receive the Unsung Hero Award.

Holtshouser said she appreciates the recognition but says, "I don't deserve it. When you enjoy something this much, why should you be honored for it?"

Pamela Atkinson, a long-time advocate for Utah's homeless, said Holtshouser's humanity buoys the spirits of the people she serves.

"I think Florence is one of those people who has learned life is not about her; it's about everyone else. She just lives her faith every day," Atkinson said.

"I just love the way she treats people with dignity and with respect. That turns into people's self-esteem growing each time they have an interaction with her."

Holtshouser says she's the beneficiary of the human connections she makes with the people she serves.

"When I leave here every day, I feel like I got 100 more blessings," she said.

Holtshouser grew up in the Cache Valley during the Depression and learned about service from her mom and dad.

Her parents raised chickens and the family shared eggs with neighbors so no one would have to go without. Her mother frequently sent one of her nine children to a neighbor's house to deliver something she had baked.

To celebrate Holthouser's 18th birthday, her mother prepared a chicken dinner for 20 of her friends. Nineteen of them attended, filling the family home in Providence with teenage laughter and conversation.

The fun ended abruptly when a radio report announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The older teens, particularly the boys, understood in an instant that the event would be a turning point in their lives, she said.

A short time later, the then-Florence Christensen met a sailor that the Navy had sent to Utah State University to teach young men about radar and electronics to further the war effort. Herb Holtshouser was Catholic from Kentucky. He was about nine years older than Florence, who was a Latter-day Saint.

On the couple's first date, Herb Holtshouser joked whether he should ask her the $64 question, a take-off on a popular radio program at the time.

Herb gave her a ring for her 19th birthday and the couple started to plan their wedding. But Herb got orders to report to a base in Del Monte, Calif. within a matter of months. "I told him 'If we get married quickly then I can go with you.' "

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