On a brisk afternoon in late December, Philadelphia Flyers legend Bobby Clarke had just finished serving food for about 90 minutes at St. John’s Hospice.
Exiting the Center City respite that feeds roughly 350 men five days a week, he was asked about the importance of volunteerism. “Well,” he said, “I know I got a lot more out of it than they did. I’m pretty sure we all did.”
Clarke, a Philadelphia icon and National Hockey League Hall of Famer, was one of eight retired Flyers — including current general manager Paul Holmgren — who donned hair nets and aprons while scooping up a delicious Asian buffet that he and his hockey brethren paid for.
Organized by two-time Stanley Cup winner Don Saleski and hospice food services manager Anthony Willoughby, the afternoon was typical for many but obviously atypical for others.
“I come here a lot, but having the Flyers here definitely makes this really special,” said Tom Knowles, whose health difficulties cost him his full-time job more than 18 months ago. “I was a teenager when the Flyers became a great team in the ’70s.
“To see them doing this 30 years later says something about the entire organization. In fact, it says a whole lot.”
A lifelong practicing Catholic, Saleski said he and his former teammates have never lost sight of their importance to the community. Whether it was softball-game fundraisers that drew thousands of fans, attending charity events or visiting hospitals, the Flyers always felt deeply attached to the Philadelphia community.
And, he said, that would never change.
“A lot of guys moved to the area and stayed there,” Saleski said. “When we see each other after a long time, it’s like we never stopped.
“That’s the way it is with the Philadelphia fans. They have never stopped being supportive. So I think we all know we have a responsibility to let them know that we appreciate them. But it comes naturally.”
Joe Kadlec, the former Flyers’ publicity director and/or fan services ambassador for 40 years who is still heavily involved with community relations, understands precisely what Saleski was saying.
Before helping serve tea and beverages, Kadlec looked around the room while some visitors were dining while others were lining up to be fed.
“No one thinks of himself as being ‘better’ or anything like that,” he said. “There is a lot of humility in this room. The people serving and the people being served are on equal footing. The people associated with the Flyers are glad to do it. It’s a special opportunity to be a part of the community, and that has been a staple of the Flyers since its inception.”
Part-time St. John’s hospice chaplain Father Dennis Witalec marvels at how many people who are obviously struggling on a practical level will tell him how “blessed” they are to be in such a loving environment.
Director of communications Gerry Huot concurs, emerging “truly humbled” by the two-way avenue of deep Christian connection between those serving and being served.
“It comes down to the importance of stewardship, “ he said. “The presence to people is phenomenal. We couldn’t do it without the volunteers. But we always hear them say that they are blessed to be a part of what happens here.”
Program director Kevin Barr, a 1973 Cardinal O’Hara graduate, has been involved with Catholic Social Services for 10 years. He summarized what he has witnessed with one of his favorite quotes.
“When power meets power, there’s confrontation,” he said. “When power meets vulnerability, there’s domination. When vulnerability meets vulnerability, there’s intimacy. And intimacy leads to transformation.”
And on a non-descript afternoon in late December, for cooks, visitors, volunteers and a group of former professional athletes, there was indeed transformation.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.