The far-reaching legacy of St. John Neumann parishioner Ted H. Denning Jr. continues
By Gabrielle Nolan
If you ever wondered if one person could make a difference in the world, the answer is yes.
I would like to introduce you to a man named Ted Denning.
His impact was far-reaching throughout East Tennessee, as Ted was a husband, father, employee, Knights of Columbus member, St. John Neumann parishioner, Boy Scout troop volunteer, and local food-delivery volunteer.
The late Theodore “Ted” H. Denning Jr. was married for 61 years to Phyllis Ann Denning. The couple relocated to Knoxville in 1980 after moving from Fort Wayne, Ind. Phyllis worked in the parish office of St. John Neumann in Farragut as secretary for 29 years until her retirement in 2014. She passed away in February 2020 at the age of 95.
Ted and Phyllis were “a dynamic team,” said Walt Hanson, the current Grand Knight of Council 8781 at St. John Neumann Parish.
Together, Ted and Phyllis had eight children: Tim, Keith, Mark, Susan, Paul, Kevin (now deceased), Brian, and Amy.
“[Dad] always said, ‘We had three boys and a girl, three boys and a girl, then we realized what we were doing, and we stopped,’” laughed Susan Denning, one of Ted’s daughters.
Ted was a charter member of and a charter officer for Council 8781, and he was elected treasurer when the council was formed.
He was a member of the Knights of Columbus for 53 years, receiving the Knight of the Year Award for the fraternal year of 1999-2000 and the Tennessee State Council Lifetime Achievement Award for the fraternal year of 2007-08.
“He loved being a Knights of Columbus member,” Ms. Denning said. “Knights stuff was always in our house while I was growing up. I’d go to this meeting, go to that meeting.”
“My dad, Ted, started out first picking up and delivering household items from parishioners and people who said that they were moving or whatever, by word of mouth. He would take it up to Crazy Quilt,” Ms. Denning reminisced. “He did that for years, along with other Knights from St. John Neumann.”
“All my siblings thought that what he did was great,” she continued. “It kept him involved in the community, kept him in the Church, kept him out and about. He didn’t just sit there and wither away after he retired.”
The ministry originally began over 20 years ago with Ted taking household items and food to Crazy Quilt Food Pantry, a program of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee that provides emergency assistance for low-income families in the surrounding Appalachian area of Newcomb, Tenn. Crazy Quilt serves close to 500 people each year.
While Ted began collecting and distributing household donations during his last years at work, he fully embraced his daily ministry after a knee replacement led to his retirement.
Over time, and of his own volition, he began asking local grocery stores and restaurants if they had extra food for donation. When stores eagerly said yes, Ted made arrangements to pick up the food and involved other Knights to help him.
“I knew Ted for several years,” said Ed Bryant, program leader at Crazy Quilt. “I would like to say he was a good friend. He took me down to Knoxville and took me to all the places that donated. . . . They took me around so I could meet all those people and thank them for what they [were] doing.”
Donations grew, and Ted began dropping off food at several pantries and organizations, in addition to Crazy Quilt.
“It slowly just kind of changed over from household items over to the food pantry,” Ms. Denning said. “It just kind of became a mission of Dad’s to make sure that there was no bread in Knoxville that was being thrown away.”
Every day for the last 15 years or so of his life, Ted would have breakfast, read the paper, and then go out to pick up the food donations, Ms. Denning said. “He would be literally gone all day…. Two out of five days he would [be gone all day]. He was always on the go with his truck.”
“We always said it was God, church, then family,” Ms. Denning laughed. “But [Dad] would say, ‘No, it’s God, family, then church.’ And [us kids were] like ‘no, because you’re always gone to go over to the church; you’re always doing that.’”
When traveling to Crazy Quilt, Ted would often see mothers with their children in line at the pantry. Many of the husbands worked in the coal mines, and the families were in need of basic necessities. If Ted came across children, he would often give them candy or desserts for them to eat and share with their siblings.
“[Dad] really didn’t like to see a kid go hungry. He had eight kids himself, and we never went hungry,” Ms. Denning said as she cried. “And he always said, ‘I do it for the kids.’ He really did it for the kids more than anything.”
Through word of mouth and telephone calls, individuals around the community began to learn about Ted’s efforts and call him to pick up their donated goods.
“They would call Dad, and Dad would go pick it up, then he would store it and then pack up his truck in the trailer and take it up to Newcomb, Tenn.,” Ms. Denning said.
After Ted passed away, the council at St. John Neumann decided they would continue his ministry of delivering food to pantries in the Knoxville area.
Today, with between 20-30 volunteers, the ministry picks up food from grocery stores and restaurants every day of the week. While most volunteers are retired, some fit in food pickup and delivery around their routine work schedules.
“We’re still operating within the limits Ted has set. It is a ministry which requires people to make time for it,” Mr. Hanson said. “You are a charitable arm, and you are a responsible member, and without you this doesn’t happen.”
Keith Sanford, a Knight and St. John Neumann parishioner, has been involved with the ministry for the past five years and currently serves as the food delivery team coordinator.
“I just make sure all the days are covered. If somebody is going to be out of town, they call me, and then I get in touch with one of our substitutes to do the pickup that day,” Mr. Sanford said. “New people come on board, and I take them around to train them.”
Mr. Sanford noted that volunteers do not have to be parishioners at St. John Neumann or in the Knights of Columbus, and new volunteers are welcome to join.
“I enjoy just seeing this all come together and how it works. I really enjoy doing the work, doing the pickups,” Mr. Sanford said. “When you drop stuff off, there’s people waiting in line, and you know the food I’m dropping off, somebody is going to be taking it home that same day.”
“I worked at [grocery stores] part-time when I was in college many moons ago, and I saw a lot of food get thrown away, and that always bothered me,” Mr. Sanford said. “I enjoy seeing stuff going to people that need it rather than ending up in the dumpster.”
Primarily, the food that is picked up is bread, pre-packaged deli sandwiches, and produce, though occasionally there are also miscellaneous canned goods and desserts.
Currently, food pickups occur at the Fresh Market stores in Farragut and Bearden seven days a week and the Publix in Farragut and University Commons once a week each. Volunteers collect bins from St. John Neumann Parish, and then load food into the bins in their own vehicles before driving to the drop-off location. These morning routines can usually take around three hours of the volunteers’ time.
For Sunday food pickups or evening pickups, sandwiches and produce are stored in large refrigerators on the parish campus until food can be delivered the following day.
The Panera Bread located in Cedar Bluff is currently the only restaurant from which the ministry picks up food. Volunteers pick up from Panera three days each week, in the evenings, and food is stored at the parish until distribution the following morning.
“Some of my brothers would actually go with [Dad] on Saturdays picking up stuff,” Ms. Denning said. “And if my siblings were visiting, they’d get in the car about quarter to nine at night, quarter to 10, and drive over [to Panera] and pick up the bread and stuff, and then the next day they’d go with him to help drop stuff off everywhere.”
“We’ve all gone with him at one point or another to pick up bread or do it ourselves if he had something come up,” Ms. Denning said. “My car would smell like Einstein Bagels for three days.”
“Dad did it up until he was 88. In fact, he was picking up food at a grocery store when he had his heart attack,” Ms. Denning said.
While Ted was picking up food at the University Commons Publix, a grocery store associate saw Ted on his monitor, clutching his chest and falling backward. The staff called 911, but it took the emergency responders 30 minutes to get his heart beating again.
After being on life support for a week, giving family a chance to travel and say goodbye, Ted passed away on March 29, 2016.
“[Ted] was doing his ministry right up until the end, which is just so remarkable,” said David Hetrick, a Knight and parishioner at St. John Neumann who was a charter member of Council 8781.
“He was just a wonderful guy,” Mr. Hetrick said. “He could appear a little bit gruff on the exterior, but on the inside he’s just always wanting to help people. He’d come to our [Knights] meetings sometimes and say, ‘You need to do this,’ and he was right, we needed to do it. He would talk people into giving more of their time to help people.”
“He got me involved,” Mr. Hetrick recalled. “He got me started with picking up [food]. So ever since 2012, every Thursday, unless I’m out of town, I will be doing this. I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years now, and I’ve really gotten a lot out of it . . . a lot more out of it than I’ve [put] into it.”
“Dad did what he was going to do,” Ms. Denning explained. “You couldn’t tell him no. He spoke his mind, he spoke his piece. If he saw something wrong, he would say something; he didn’t care. And he never knew a stranger. He would talk to anybody anywhere about anything. He knew more people than I will ever know. That’s pretty much Dad in a nutshell.”
After her dad passed away, Ms. Denning offered to take over the duty of creating the monthly volunteer calendar for Panera Bread. She sends it to the coordinators at various churches who also pick up from Panera, and they pass along the schedules to their volunteers.
“That’s how I’m involved,” Ms. Denning said. “And if for some reason somebody can’t pick up, something like . . . they’re going on vacation or whatever the case may be, if I can’t find somebody to pick it up, I will go pick up the leftover food at night.”
Today, the ministry serves various organizations around Knoxville, and each location receives food regularly on a specific day of the week.
On Sundays, food deliveries are dropped off at the EM Jellenik Center in North Knoxville, which is a residential community providing support and recovery to clients with substance-abuse addictions.
On Mondays and Saturdays, volunteers make the drive to Crazy Quilt in Newcomb to drop off food donations at that pantry. According to Mr. Bryant, the Crazy Quilt pantry is able to create about 30 food boxes for clients from the donated food.
Tuesday drop-offs go to the Love Kitchen in East Knoxville, which provides meals and food packages to the homebound, homeless, and unemployed.
On Wednesdays, food is delivered to Samaritan Place in West Knoxville, which is a program of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee that serves senior citizens in crisis, many of whom are homeless.
“It is a rewarding ministry,” said Bill Hermes, a Knight who has delivered food to Samaritan Place for the past year. “Samaritan Place uses the food to support an assisted-living home and absolutely relies on the donations. Nancy runs the kitchen… yelling out a warm thanks every week. It is a good gig.”
Thursday drop-offs go to the FISH Pantry in North Knoxville, a nonprofit food pantry that welcomes all guests to come through their food line, no questions asked.
“You see this great food that would be thrown away,” Mr. Hetrick said. “You bring it here [to FISH Pantry] and see the line of people—there’s always 100 people here, sometimes more to pick up this food, and these people would probably go hungry if they didn’t have it. It just gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that we are helping people who are [less fortunate] than we are.”
On Fridays, the Ladies of Charity in North Knoxville receives food deliveries that aid its emergency food packages to individuals and families.
“When I started here, I heard of Ted Denning, and then I finally got to meet him,” said Susan Unbehaun, executive director at Ladies of Charity. “He was a very tall man and always was in bib overalls driving around in a red truck.”
“He would drive around town getting all the food donations you possibly can. This was before Second Harvest had organized the food-to-rescue that it does today, so it really was the grassroots start for food rescue for us,” she said.
Ted personally visited Ladies of Charity multiple times per week with food donations.
“I think the biggest thing we frustrated him with was we didn’t unload his truck and buckets fast enough so he could go out and get more food,” Ms. Unbehaun remembered with a smile.
“[The ministry] has continued today with them delivering Fresh Market foods here once or twice a week,” Ms. Unbehaun said. “The nice thing about this food donation is that it’s sandwiches and packaged meals that we can hand directly out to people in need, especially the homeless.”
Although Ted has now been gone for five years, the ministry he started continues to run strong today.
Earlier this year, Lisa Healy, the executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, sent a letter to Knights of Columbus Council 8781 thanking them for their generous support of the food pantry at Crazy Quilt during the 2020 calendar year.
“Your organization made 48 trips to Crazy Quilt in Jellico,” the letter read. “The trips averaged 1,500 pounds of food each, with five Knights making the 150-mile round trip each Tuesday.”
“Food delivery, I figure, is a stealth ministry…. They do it with no expectation of credit for it,” Mr. Hanson said. “They are all very humble people.”
Because of Ted’s personal desire to bring food to the needy in East Tennessee, likely thousands of individuals have been touched over the last 20 years by the organizations and volunteers who gave their time to deliver and distribute food.
Knights of Columbus Council 8781 was renamed last year in Ted’s honor.
The resolution to change the council’s name, which was sent to the Knights of Columbus board of directors, stated the change was “in order to memorialize the countless contributions of Ted H. Denning Jr. to the service of others” and, if approved, the members would “find a renewed energy to emulate their council’s namesake.”
For those interested in volunteering with the food delivery ministry, contact Walt Hanson at email@example.com.