Giving His Bread to Strangers

The gift of giving enriches everyone

By Mike Randall Printed in the Headlight Herald, February 18, 2017

Two months ago I walked out of Fred Meyer’s in Tillamook, was heading for my car when a man walked up to me and said, “How would you like a loaf of homemade bread?” I was surprised and grateful for the gift, though we only talked for a minute. He is John Tenny from Pacific City, and told me that since his wife, Sue, died from cancer in February 2016, he bakes eight to twelve loaves of bread each week and randomly gives them away to strangers in Tillamook County, Salem or wherever else his errands and travels take him. 

A couple of days later I called John to ask if we could meet for coffee. He said, “Sure.” When we sat down at Five Rivers Coffeehouse, he told me that he bakes bread and gives it away to “honor Sue and our fifty-five years of marriage.” When they traveled during their later years Sue would give wrapped candy to strangers: highway flaggers, service station attendants, store clerks and others. “She loved people, wherever she was and whomever she met, she was always truly interested in them.”

Sue had been born in Birmingham, England and John met her on a blind date when Sue was a student at the University of Minnesota. Sue’s first words to him on that date were, “Not another (cuss word deleted) Irishman.”

John had already managed to flunk out of there after four quarters. He is dyslexic, but never knew it until much later, always being in the lowest ten percent of his class throughout grade school and high school. He pursued Sue for months, repeatedly hitchhiking 300 miles each way from Kenosha, Wisconsin to St. Paul, Minnesota to see her. Finally, he proposed to her by mail and “Boom!” Amazing! She accepted, and they married in 1961.

Then began their epic journey together. In the next fifty-five years they lived in twenty-four houses in seventeen cities in several states. Fancying themselves members of the Beat Generation, John says, they headed west in “an old jalopy with $160 and no jobs and no skills.” Bouncing from Denver to San Francisco, entranced by Jack Kerouac’s book, “On the Road,” they hung out in North Beach coffeehouses and lived on damaged apples, oranges and grapes they bought off the docks. They moved to San Diego and John got a job building roof trusses, became a journeyman carpenter, passing the test though he had no experience. “We felt suddenly rich. I went from earning $2.85 an hour to $13 an hour.” He ultimately spent 10 years in that work while Sue worked in various finance jobs throughout their marriage.

Along the way their two daughters, Colleen and Susie, were born. John volunteered in their school and found he loved teaching so they headed back to the Midwest and Illinois State University for him to earn a teaching degree. He had always been a terrible student but didn’t know why it was so hard for him. Once enrolled, he went to the university’s study skills center where the instructor evaluated him. From that she taught him the way that he personally learned best. It was a true revelation that changed his life.

Taking course overloads, he finished his BA degree in three years, graduating with Honors, and a two-year MS degree in one year. They moved back west to John’s first teaching job in Amity, Oregon. He taught there for five years then taught in Falls City. Not making enough money teaching, he got his contractor’s license and started building houses.

While there he was asked by Willamette University to teach a class, then five classes. He built his construction company up until he had nineteen employees, and built a toy manufacturing company at the same time. He sold both companies, and went back to the University of Oregon and earned a Ph. D in “Computers in Education.” He became director of the Graduate School of Education at Willamette University and stayed there for twenty years until he retired. Sue retired in 1998 as fiscal manager of Oregon State University’s printing department.

After retiring from Willamette, John wrote a software program that helps school administrators and teachers observe individual students and help them improve their learning skills. By the time John and Sue sold that to a Tennessee-based educational software company, the software was used in all fifty states and twelve foreign countries. He is still called in to consult with that company.

But then, Sue became sick with lung cancer in 2014, though the problem was thought to be related to her heart. Not until December 2015 during a trip to the emergency room was late-stage lung cancer discovered. It was thought that with chemo treatments she would live another two years, but it was not to be so.

John keeps a journal as he has done since 1961 when he and Sue married. Details of John’s caregiving and Sue’s suffering are left out of the following excerpts.

January 20, 2016: “I cannot do anything to fight it off. ...I can recognize...she has cancer and will soon die from it, but I cannot accept that.... I know I will be without her but cannot accept that as real.”

January 23, 2016: “We will go on this journey with courage and, strange to say, joy. Not joy that she will die, but joy at the wonderful life lived....”

January 24, 2016: “A bit of a rough day for Sue—nausea. ...some pain and discomfort in her throat. She took a short walk to look at the upper garden, and that tired her.’

February 4, 2016: “I think often about life after she is gone.... What will I do? How will I stay sane? I imagine driving to California, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri.”

February 12, 2016: “I was thinking today of buying a camper...and wandering after she dies. Thoughts of running away, but from what? I will carry the pain with me.”

February 20, 2016: “Sue, the core of my soul and love of my life, died holding my hand at 1:17 a.m. this morning. ...Last night, she looked me in the eye and said pleadingly, ‘I just want to go.’ [Family members came then to be with her.] I laid next to her and held her right hand, while others held her left hand. She said her right hand was numb, and it was cold to the touch. ...Her breath was shallow and labored. ...I said, ‘I love you’ and she opened her eyes, kissed me and said ‘I love you, too,’ her last words.” 

John just told me that a couple of days ago he gave away three loaves in Salem. One to a woman who helped him load some Home Depot plywood onto his truck; one to a service station attendant who pumped his gas; and one to a homeless woman sitting in back of a McDonald’s parking lot. “Giving away bread makes people smile, and it awakens their giving spirit.”

Through Pacific City’s Food Pantry, John has taught people, young kids and older adults, how to make bread. Last month, he showed me how, and I’ve been giving most of mine away to family and friends. It’s dense, crusty and tasty “no-knead” bread, the good stuff of life.

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