Helen Stratigos, treasurer for McKeesport Meals-on-Wheels, talks with longtime volunteer Lou Zell before a tribute luncheon on Friday as fellow volunteer Chuck Jarrell looks on. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
For 34 years, neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stayed Lou Zell from his appointed rounds as a letter carrier in McKeesport and White Oak.
And when he retired in 1983, he just kept on delivering --- "Meals-on-Wheels" to elderly residents of McKeesport, White Oak, Port Vue and the surrounding area, every day, five days a week, for another 33 years.
On Friday, White Oak Mayor Ina Jean Marton and Zell's fellow Meals-on-Wheels volunteers saluted his dedication during a luncheon at the Point Pleasant Retirement Community in North Versailles Twp.
"We do meals on wheels so people like you don't have to live here!" Zell, now 91, joked with residents, before sheepishly apologizing to the retirement community's staff, standing nearby.
White Oak Mayor Ina Jean Marton presents Lou Zell with a proclamation honoring his more than 30 years of service to McKeesport and White Oak Meals on Wheels participants. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
Zell has lived at Point Pleasant for four years, but he continued to do Meals-on-Wheels deliveries until a few months ago.
In the end, it wasn't the rain or the snow or any of that other stuff that finally halted his deliveries. It was his eyesight.
"I lost the sight in my left eye, and I have no peripheral vision now," Zell said Friday. "I had to give up driving. My daughter took the car down to North Carolina, and so I lost some of my independence."
Does he miss it? "Oh, sure," he said. "When you do something for 33 years, you get to know people, and you make acquaintances with them. Of course I miss it."
Helen Stratigos, who serves as treasurer for the McKeesport Meals-on-Wheels program, said about 90 senior citizens receive deliveries Monday through Friday in McKeesport, White Oak, Dravosburg, Glassport, and parts of West Mifflin and Port Vue.
At times, the program has made as many as 140 deliveries per week, she said.
Participants pay $20 per week and receive two meals, including one hot meal, every day, including fruit, milk and juice. Food is prepared in the kitchen at First United Methodist Church of McKeesport.
The McKeesport meals program is not federally funded and exists entirely on donations and grants, Stratigos said.
"Fortunately for McKeesport, we are very lucky," Zell said. "We have a lot of foundations that support this program --- McKeesport Hospital, G.C. Murphy, Wivagg, Peters, Crawford --- plus we get gifts from some of the people we serve. One year, we had enough left over to give $10,000 to the Irwin program to help them out."
Besides Meals-on-Wheels, Zell also was a dedicated volunteer for the annual "Stamp Out Hunger" Food Drive, organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers union, as well as for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
A McKeesport native, Zell served for nearly two years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, mainly aboard U.S.S. Lenoir, a cargo ship that traveled the Pacific Ocean, making deliveries to China, the Phillippines and occupied Japan.
Although U.S.S. Lenoir was attacked by the Japanese, Zell had his closest call in San Francisco harbor. He was one of a group of sailors that was assigned to a maintenance detail, working along the hull of the ship using scaffolds and rope ladders.
The rest of the crew had gone back on deck for lunch and Zell was about to join them when the rope he was climbing broke, dumping him into the bay between the dock and the ship's hull.
With nobody nearby to see him fall into the water, Zell might have died, but he was able to find his way to another rope and climb back aboard.
Zell said his volunteer efforts over the past 30-plus years are his way of giving back for surviving that incident.
"I've always figured, since then, that the Lord must have had some reason to keep me here," Zell said.
For information about the McKeesport Meals-on-Wheels program, call Rose Marshall, coordinator, at (412) 672-1998.
Originally published November 17, 2017.