August Wilson died this past Sunday of liver cancer. As the world knows, he was an African American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner. My husband and I knew him when he was a cook. A chef, really.
Little Brothers of the Poor: Friends of the Elderly (“of the Poor” has since been dropped from their name) was my husband’s first employer after graduating with a sociology degree from University of Minnesota. He had his eye on a career in social work, specifically working with the elderly, and so he had been volunteering there while he was in school. He moved from volunteer to paid employee by taking on the job as driver. He picked up the elderly friends and drove them where they wanted to go, which often was to an event at Little Brothers.
Dave–-my husband only we were not yet married--was one of about ten people on the staff at that time. Most lived communally, sharing a house and cars. They ate their meals together at the Little Brothers building. Although Dave didn’t live in the communal house, he ate most of his meals with them. I sometimes ate there too. At that time, the meals were cooked by August Wilson.
Wilson had moved to Minnesota in 1978 to write for the Science Museum in St. Paul. We didn’t know much about that part of his life at the time but we knew that he was a wonderful chef and a kind and gentle part of the Little Brothers team.
Food was an important part of the mission of Little Brothers, which had begun in France in 1946 as an outreach to the poor and lonely elderly. Then and now, however, their approach is different than that of many charities with the same focus. This difference is reflected in their motto, Flowers before Bread. They seek to bring joy, pleasure, and dignity to their elderly friends. Although they do this in lots of ways, one of the primary ways is through food. Elderly friends were (and still are) invited to extravagant meals at the Little Brothers building. The friends were picked up and brought home by people, in cars. The food was fine-restaurant quality. Multiple courses, china dishes, tablecoths, flowers on the table, live music, wine.
Part way through Dave’s tenure at Little Brothers we were married. Several months later, he resigned his position because we were moving out of state for him to attend graduate school. The staff gave us a lovely farewell dinner at the communal home. We have a black-and-white photograph of Wilson at that event, standing by the table of food, eating and talking. He gave Dave a poem he had written as a good-bye gift. I’m not sure how much longer Wilson was there before he left also.
My husband went on to become what he had wanted to be, a social worker with the elderly. August Wilson went on to become what he had wanted to be, a playwright telling the 20th-century African American story.