People Who Make A Difference: Arthur Vandenberg

This is like a job to him. He hardly ever misses a day, and when he does, he calls in to let us know.”

by Dave Riley

MY NEIGHBOR ARNIE — Arnie’s full name is Joshua Bateman Arnold — anyway, Arnie is pretty careless with numbers. “China has three trillion people,” he once told me. Another time he claimed that a guy set a world’s record by reading aloud the entire text of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in seventeen minutes. “In Russian!” he added. But my all-time favorite Arnie factoid is when he said that according to the U.S. Census, there are more swimming pools in California than there are people.

So I was a bit skeptical when Arnie, who is a Meals on Wheels volunteer driver, told me the story of Arthur Vandenberg “He’s a volunteer who has worked there for years packing meals five days a week,” Arnie said. “It seems like a small thing, but if someone didn’t pack ‘em, us drivers couldn’t deliver ‘em. Why over the years he’s packed more than a million meals.”

Now wait just a darn minute, I thought. My rule of thumb is whenever Arnie gives me a big number, I divide it by ten or at least cut it in half. So I went down to the local senior center to visit with Arthur, a Meals volunteer for the past twenty-eight years and Meals packer for the past twenty I found him in a relatively quiet coffee-and-donut room where there were maybe eight or ten people sipping and chatting. On tables spread around the room were canvas-type thermal food bags, the kind the restaurant delivery people use. It was a very relaxed, very quiet atmosphere.

During the course of the conversation I asked Arthur about how many meals he had packed. He came up with this formula: 260 weekdays a year times 20 years times 200 meals a day.

Voila! A little over one million meals meals, just as Arnie had said.

ARTHUR VANDENBERG IS A 90-YEAR-OLD CALIFORNIAN, with a trim build and lots of low-key energy. “I play volleyball four times a week,” he told me, and it was easy to believe. He speaks in moderate tones, but you quickly get the impression he’s a person of strong convictions. On his hat were two pins, one for ten years of service to the senior center, which is run by Age Well Senior Services, and and one for twenty-five years of service. He and his wife Carmen live in Laguna Woods Village, a large retirement community.

He grew up in Anaheim, decades before Disneyland was even a glimmer in Mr. Disney’s eye. During the depression he often worked in his dad’s orange groves. When other family members had to leave the groves to earn money for the family, Arthur, who was in high school at the time, says he tended them by himself.

“I was busy,” he told me. “I didn’t have time to get in trouble.”

“Tell me about packing meals,” I said, but before he could, a vehicle pulled up outside.

“Truck’s here!” someone yelled, and in a flash the coffee sippers went from zero to sixty. If you watch many NFL telecasts, you’ve probably seen Chris Berman narrate what is called “the fastest three minutes in television.” It’s a furiously breathless audiovisual recounting of all that Sunday’s NFL results in just 180 seconds.

Well what happens after the truck arrives is the fastest ten minutes in Meals on Wheels. Outside a fellow began unloading rolling food pantries containing Wheels meals from a truck.

“You might want to find a place to one side,” Manager Chris Etcheverry warned me, and I quickly found out why. The food containers that rolled into the room can deliver a fierce blow to anyone in their way. Instantly Arthur and the other

Arthur Vandenberg, the Million Meal Man.

Arthur Vandenberg, the Million Meal Man.

food packers began unloading the pantries and putting the meals into the food bags. I watched as he and George Ritter Koschel, wearing gloves to protect their hands, loaded meals heated to 160 degrees into red or hot bags. Eventually the bags were piled onto heavy duty carts (carts that Arthur hand made, by the way) that were wheeled outside where the bags were put on tables for the Meals’ drivers to pick up.

And almost as fast as it began, the activity level wound down to a walk-in-the-park pace as the final bag began its journey to Meals recipients. Outside the Meals’ volunteer drivers were peeling out of the parking lot and on their way to several hundred homes.

“Ten minutes,” Arthur said to me proudly. “We did all that in ten minutes.” Later he had to chide Chris.   “I had to work with two left gloves today,” he said. “Two left gloves. That just isn’t right…”

“Arthur’s a gem,” Chris told me. “This is like a job to him. He hardly ever misses a day, and when he does, he calls in to let us know.” Arthur, I hasten to say, isn’t the only valuable volunteer at the center. I picked him out to profile because he’s been there the longest. In truth there are lots of Arthurs at this senior center and at others throughout the country, though I suspect very few with his years of service.

I SAW ARNIE A FEW DAYS LATER and told him how impressed I was with Arthur and his colleagues. “They’re all hard workers,” Arnie said. “Every one of them. That place couldn’t run without volunteers. You know how many volunteers there are in America?” He paused, but not quite long enough for me to says anything. “Sixty-three million,” he said. “Sixty-three son-of-a-gun million! There’s a bunch of people who keep track of such things. Those volunteers contributed almost eight billion hours last year. That’s billion with a B.”

“How much do you volunteer, Arnie?”

“Aw shucks what I do ain’t nothin. By the way,” he added, without feeling the need for any segue, “do you know what the world’s record is for the most Christmas trees chopped down in two minutes?”

“Golly no, Arnie,” I said. “I was absent from school that day.”

“Right. Well, anyway, it’s twenty-seven.

I tried to picture that, but it just seemed impossible. So I went home and told Mrs. R., who looked it up on the internet.

“Surprise, surprise,” she said. “According to the Guinness Book of World Records, on December 19, 2008, Erin Lavoie chopped down 27 trees in two minutes in Virginia Beach, Virginia.”  

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.