Salvation Army kitchen crew keeps 'em comin' as agency seeks new director

Assistant Kitchen Manager Jerry Wagner grills up some 'doggies' in the Salvation Army kitchen.

"Keep 'em comin!'"

Sunny White, kitchen manager at the Salvation Army Service Center in Brownwood, sang out the instructions to the kitchen's 67-year-old assistant kitchen manager.

"Yes ma'am!" Jerry Wagner sang back as he turned a dozen or so "doggies" — beef hot dogs — on the kitchen's grill.

It was the noon hour Thursday, and White, Wagner and a handful of volunteers prepared and served lunch to clients who formed a line and pushed trays along the serving line.

"I've cooked 240 hot dogs so far today," Wagner said cheerfully. 

Work goes on at the Brownwood agency following the resignation last month of Donna Harris, who had worked as director for five years. The clients keep coming, and the kitchen serves up 120 to 130 hot lunches a day.

The agency hopes for a seamless transition when it hires a new director, said Caren Friend, who holds the title of service extension director and was Harris' boss. Friend is temporarily leading the Brownwood agency and a search is under way for a new director, Friend said.

Friend worked as director of the Brownwood Salvatoin Army from 2001-'05. The new director, Friend said, needs to have skills including administration, management, overseeing programs and volunteers.

And, Friend said, the new director needs to "care for people. We want someone who has a heart for people, of course."

That sense of caring extends to the kitchen staff and volunteers. "I love this," Wagner said. "When they tell me to go, I stay."

Addressing another kitchen crew member, Wagner called out, "Bring me my thing-a-ma-jigger, and I'll fix you right up," m'lady."

Wagner, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, said he's been cooking since he was 5 or 6 years old. Wagner said he didn't get to cook in the Air Force, but worked as a jet mechanic and served for two years in Vietnam.

Wagner and his wife, Julie, ended up in Brownwood 35 years ago, working in the maintenance department at the Pepsi plant.

Wagner retired from that job and began volunteering at the Salvation Army. "And all of a sudden it was my calling," Wagner said.

He became the paid assistant kitchen manager about six months ago.

"I love serving the folks," Wagner said. "I love giving to the community. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment, at the age of my life, to give back."

Wagner referenced the baked beans that were part of Thursday's lunch fare. He'd baked them using his grandmother's recipe from the 1940s.

"It looks like about 50 pounds of them are gone," Wagner said.

When someone asked about the recipe, Wagner replied, "Ooh …"

"We'd tell you but we'd have to kill you," White said slyly.

But Wagner relented on the recipe: Boil early in the morning with salt, pepper and ham. Add dark brown sugar, worcestershire sauce, ketchup and chopped onions.

"Are you more ready for some more doggies?" Wagner asked as he continued grilling."

"Yes," volunteer Wanda Roe replied.

"I got 'em!" Wagner sang out.

"It's a fun place to work," White said. "We're doing fine. We're doing fine. We've got a great leader in Caren … we just do what God wants us to do. This is his work."