Doing it Ted's way

Labor Day, for all its good times, has its roots in bad times. I had begun to write this week about the dignity of work, and it actually was sounding profound.

Little that I might write, though, could say more than the humble witness of Ted Eller, who died Aug. 23. If you've ever questioned whether a person's gifts, energy and work can help build a community and its people, Ted Eller was the answer.

Ted had retired after 43 years as a dentist by the time I met him, but he never stopped working. I first saw Ted my first day helping at Helping Hands food pantry. Here was a guy about 75 and maybe 140 pounds, in nice slacks hitched about to his belly button. When the food truck arrived from Des Moines, there was no doubt who was in charge. Amid the hustle and chaos of unloading four tons of food, nobody could outwork, outthink or outsmile Ted. We'd constantly see him bending to hoist bulky boxes nearly half his weight, sweat sticking his short-sleeved shirt to his back.

At first, I naively thought he was an employee of Helping Hands, because he worked like somebody who was getting paid for what he did. No, just a volunteer like the rest of us, but one who inspired everyone around him to work harder and be better. If he cared that much, so should we.

Age and sense finally slowed him down about a dozen years back, but his spirit lives on at Helping Hands. He wanted volunteers to be safe and keep coming, so we'd never stack flats of canned goods much higher than our hips. He'd make sure that no helper left without his thanks and a sandwich. Most importantly, at the end of the day, he'd want our shelves mostly empty. The food doesn't do anybody much good there. Ted's gone, but we still do things Ted's way.

Ted's way is a good way, not just to fill food sacks but to build a community. The northwest corner of Lincoln and Pleasant - probably our town's most visible intersection - wasn't always so pretty. One day I noticed barrels of flowers had magically appeared there. Not long after, I drove past and who's out there in the heat with a watering can? Ted Eller, of course.

There's a pharmacy there now, but I can't drive past that intersection, or by the barbershop that once was Helping Hands, without thinking of Ted. Folks like him leave their mark not only on a community, but on our hearts. At maybe 5-foot-6, he was a quiet giant, a caring soul who used his gifts for good.

Labor Day is all about the way we use our gifts to build up the common good. It's also about taking care of ourselves, the people we work with and the people who work for us.

This Labor Day weekend, don't just think about relaxing. Think about work. Let your co-workers or employees know you care. Thank the cashier or grocery bagger, compliment the church organist, tip the waiter a little more.

And do it all with a smile. That's Ted's way.

— Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Knoxville Journal-Express, he can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155, or via email: