Cathy Free
Willard Nelson, who recently turned 95 despite eating at McDonald's every day, now holds court at his round table every Friday.

SALT LAKE CITY — A funny thing happened to the “Knight of the Golden Arches” last year during his daily half-mile trek to McDonald’s.

After a lifetime as a Republican, Willard Nelson, then 94, decided to switch political parties and become a Democrat. It made for a lively conversation during the coffee klatch that afternoon at the round table he shared daily with his friends, many of whom are conservatives.

His friends have forgiven him — those who are left.

“When you get to be my age,” notes Nelson, “there aren’t many friends you can call. Every time I come in for coffee now, I know it might be my last time.” He pauses, his eyes twinkling. “So I have to get into trouble while I can.”

Five years have passed since I last sat down with Nelson at the McDonald’s on Parley’s Way, where he’d held court for 10 years every lunch hour over cheeseburgers and coffee. In honor of Nelson’s 95th birthday, his son, Neil, suggested that I join him for a Free Lunch again, since every day that the former railroad mail clerk can refill his coffee cup is a bonus.

In January, Nelson and his wife, Verda, 89, moved to a senior retirement center, several miles from their old neighborhood, scuttling Nelson’s daily walks to the Golden Arches. Determined to keep the tradition going even though his eyesight is failing, he came up with a compromise:

On Fridays, before Verda had her hair styled at a Sugarhouse salon, she could drop him off at his old outpost. And if Verda wasn’t able to drive him, his stepson Paul Wiseman, or daughter-in-law, Toni Wiseman, could give him a lift.

So the laughs and good times continue, even though Nelson’s round table regulars are down to three: His good friend, Ray Kane, who is 97, and his kid brothers, Oren, 93, and Emery, 91. On Nelson’s birthday, Ray and Oren showed up to celebrate, along with Paul and Toni and Nelson’s daughter, Susan Jarvis. His wife was still in rehab after a knee replacement, but son Neil joined the party with some of Nelson’s 69 great-grandkids via cell phone.

“My dad’s McDonald’s ritual is so important to him — he looks forward to it all week,” says Susan. “He loves talking about current events and sharing a new joke. He’s the same way with our family. He loves a good laugh.”

Susan recalls a recent breakfast where she watched her father load his plate high with bacon. “Should you really be doing that, Dad?” she asked. “What would your doctor say?”

Willard Nelson didn’t miss a beat. “My doctor’s dead,” he said.

Tucking into a birthday donut, Nelson grins. “I figure at this stage, I can pretty well eat what I want,” he says.

When he was a young man of 80 or 85, says Nelson, he actually lost weight eating lunch at McDonald’s every day. “Walking here gave me something to do,” he says, “and it kept me out of trouble at home.”

Restaurant regulars soon grew accustomed to the raucous round table in the middle of the dining room, with Nelson sharing a few of his daily “Willardisms.”

“The world is full of apathy, but who cares?” he’d tell his friends. Or, “They don’t pay me to be good — I’m good for nothing.” And, “When it’s all said and done, there’s more said than done,” says Nelson.

“It’s not what you make, it’s what you do with what you make that counts,” he says, when asked to reflect on his 95 years. “So when I’m done here today, I have one item on my agenda: I’m going to go home and take a long nap.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column for the Deseret News since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.