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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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.

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.' "

Resources were limited at the time but Florence's mother put together a lovely little reception. "It was hard for them for their oldest daughter to get married in the Catholic Church," she said.

But Florence's mother had deep respect for Herb. "She'd tell me, 'He's such a good man. You take good care of him.' "

While in California, the couple's first child was born. Herb's military service took the young family to Chicago. When the war ended, he worked in the early days of television engineering in Illinois. 

Herb Holtshouser brought his young family back to Utah when he got a job establishing what is now Channel 4 in Salt Lake City. Herb retired from the public television station KUED, where he was chief engineer. He passed away in 2003.

The Holtshousers' children, Barbara, Wayne, Ruth, Richard, Jean and Joe were raised in the Catholic church and all are graduates of Judge Memorial High School.

Florence was a regular volunteer at Judge, too, until she was offered a job in the school kitchen when her youngest son was a freshman.

On school holidays, Florence would volunteer for CCS. Early on, she worked out of the basement of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, handing out clothing, toys, canned goods and cake mixes. Her children often tagged along, playing nearby while she assisted people.

The gift of service apparently made a strong impression on the Holtshousers' eldest child, who became a nun in the Holy Cross order.

Holtshouser, known to generations of Judge students as Mrs. H., retired from the school after 40 years.

Jeanette Sawaya, a college counselor who has worked at Judge for nearly 30 years herself, said Florence's smile would "light up Monday mornings and her kind words would always warm my heart."

Many mornings, Judge teachers, students and staff entered a school filled with the aroma of Florence's cinnamon rolls baking in the kitchen.

Linda Simpson, who teaches English at Judge, said Florence has an uncanny ability to meet people where they are.

"Florence is probably the warmest, most welcoming person I've ever known. It didn't matter if you were the principal or the newest freshman, she treated them the same."

Joe Olenick, who has worked with Florence since 2005, said he rarely socializes with his co-workers. Florence is such "an alright lady" that he's making an exception to attend her awards dinner.

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"I don't go nowhere. The big brass could be up there having a meeting and I don't go. But Flo is very special," he said.

Another man eating lunch at the dining room said he, too, appreciates Florence's deft touch with people others readily ignore.

"Some of the people here feel like society has left them behind," said Michael Callis. She just has that compassion."

Minkevitch said it's a compassion deeply rooted in her faith.

"You know what I see in a lot of their eyes?" Holtshouser said of the men, women and children she serves. "I see Jesus."

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com