“Where are the organizations I can participate in?”
That’s one of the first things Leo Baldwin asked when he moved to Whidbey Island at the age of 86. He then spent the next 12 years of his life fostering community connections while becoming a beloved island icon.
That’s why the man who lived to age 98 and volunteered as a board member and friend-to-all at Island Senior Resources is now immortalized as the namesake of Leo’s Place dining hall, which officially opened in Bayview on Oct. 1.
Leo’s Place is a new community dining experience, which serves lunch to anyone who wants to share a meal and have a conversation – or not. People come and go as they please and are encouraged to linger after lunch.
Many of the diners are seniors who come from all across South Whidbey, but the chefs and volunteers at Leo’s Place want the larger Whidbey community to know that it’s an open lunchroom and all are welcome for a hot meal four days a week. The concept is intergenerational dining, with an invitation to working people from nearby businesses and to anyone who wishes just to share a meal.
Most of the food is made from scratch, and many of the cooks previously owned cafés ¬ so it’s far from being “institutional fare.” It’s served buffet-style, with seating at communal tables.
Expect to see main dishes such as turkey with blueberry chipotle, salmon with lemon sauce, or beef and broccoli with fried rice. Some days feature Reuben sandwiches or chili-stuffed potatoes, and side dishes range from broccoli salad with cranberries to cucumber pepper salad or mashed potatoes with gravy. The monthly menu is available online, so diners know what to expect on any given day.
As the crowd of friends, family, fellow board members and regulars at the center gathered to honor Leo and christen the newly named lunch spot last week, his daughter, Christina Baldwin, shared stories about his life.
“Leo Baldwin is my dad, and he was raised by a bunch of bees,” Christina said with a twinkle in her eye, before explaining the honey and bee motif at the opening ceremony.
Leo grew up in a tiny town outside Great Falls, Montana, romping with his brother and dad though alfalfa fields hosting the family bee operation. Surrounded by 500 colonies of busy buzzing bees, Leo inevitably carried with him the much-touted family mythology about the merits of honey. After he passed away in October 2018, the whole family met in Montana and “got doused in honey, eating honey and biscuits, and it was great fun,” according to Christina.
She went on to explain that Leo had a two-hour lunch every day and that his philosophy was to enjoy food and connect with those around him. He had his main meal every day, for 12 years, at the very place that now bears his name or in its counterpart at Brookhaven, stating that it was the best food of his life.
He always lingered, played cribbage, taught people card games, supervised jigsaw puzzles, and was what Christina calls “a walking conversation piece.” That extended to the parade of friends along his walking route in Langley as well. From his home on Fifth Street, he would wander through downtown wearing one of his signature jewelry-laden hats, hang out in the Commons and chat with people in the shops and post office.
Christina described Leo’s contribution as a “subtle heritage,” quietly giving to everyone in casual conversation. His friendship with Helen Nobile, whom he jokingly called his “older woman” at two years his senior, became a model for the concept of “aging in friendship.” He cared for her in illness, and she died just a few months before Leo last year, at age 100.
But his contribution to society had many phases that few people knew about. A lot of his lifetime career focused on senior issues, and he was involved in the founding of AARP. As an expert in senior housing, he was involved in nonprofits dealing with issues of isolation and keeping people alive and well.
In Leo’s final days, as he conversed with Christina in his hospital room, she asked him, “What are the things that you lived by that you really want to make sure live on after you?”
The result of that conversation is now known as “Leo’s Village Essentials” and is a mantra of sorts for senior living on South Whidbey. It goes like this:
“Find your place and fully inhabit it. Greet and meet and pause for story. Invite diversity among acquaintances and friends. Come to the table, eat in companionship, savor and linger. Contribute generously from what you have learned along life’s way. Practice your values and your moral code. Live so that you die in the arms of community.”
To share a meal Leo’s way, head over to Leo’s Place at Island Senior Resources. Meals are served Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 11:45 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., with a suggested donation of $6.
Menus are posted online at senior-resources.org. People can also order a meal for take-out by calling 360-321-1600. Eligible seniors are welcome to eat at no charge, and the greater community can contribute to this and other ongoing nutrition programs online or by calling 360-321-1600.