Who We Are
The Music Man
VNA Meals on Wheels volunteer keeps the beat at 96
Walking up the steps of a small home near Bachman Lake, a meal in his hands destined for the man inside, VNA Meals on Wheels volunteer Ned Startzel sings a few lines from a song that was popular when men wore hats and the newest Humphrey Bogart movie was the big draw at the box office. For Ned, they’re the latest notes in a life set to music.
If his life had a soundtrack, it would be one he wrote himself.
“We do not stop singing because we get old,” Ned says. “We get old because we stop singing.”
Ned has been delivering Meals on Wheels longer than VNA has. When VNA assumed the service from the Women’s Council of Dallas in 1973, Ned was already there. He started delivering meals just a few years after the program’s 1957 inception and thinks he began in 1960 or 1961. It’s impossible to tell for sure – no one has records that go back that far. What is certain is that Ned was delivering Meals on Wheels when John F. Kennedy was in office. Through the Vietnam War, the moon landing, the oil crisis of the ‘70s, the end of the Cold War, the rise of the Internet, Ned has gone on delivering meals, month after month and year after year. For more than 50 years, Ned has delivered the same Meals on Wheels route.
It’s part of a life set to the twin refrains of music and service to others.
“It’s just a great feeling to be able to bring a bit of joy and companionship into someone’s life,” Ned says of his visits to VNA Meals on Wheels clients. “Sometimes I’ll sing to them if they’re feeling down. Music has such a wonderful power.”
Music has always been part of Ned’s life. Born in 1918 in a small town in Pennsylvania, his parents were both active in singing and dancing, owning and operating a small chain of dance studios scattered across the state. As a young man, he attended Penn State, where he studied music and wrote four musicals that were performed on stage to great acclaim. In 1939 and 1940, he and a group of his friends, fellow Penn State students, toured Pennsylvania, entertaining in different venues, large and small, with a musical review of original material.
“We made a lot of money in college doing that,” Ned says with a nostalgic smile. “Particularly for back then. We had great plans for what we were going to do after graduation, that we were going to tour the country and be famous. But most of us graduated in 1940 or 1941, and then the war happened.”
Not everyone from his group made it home from World War II. When his country called him to service, Ned joined the United States Army Air Forces. From 1942 to 1946, he served as a statistical officer in Washington D.C. and in England. When the war was over, the youthful dream of a career in show business fell away and Ned became a salesman. His natural charisma and ease with people made him a success, but still he never let the music out of his life, even when his first wife passed away.
His sales job with Moore Business Forms eventually brought him to Dallas, where he was the local manager from 1964 to 1977. During this time, he met and married his second wife, Elsie, and is the proud father of two daughters and two stepdaughters. Recently, the couple moved from their home of almost 50 years into a nearby retirement community that was equipped to help Elsie as her health began to fail.
Though he’s long retired at the age of 96, Ned has never stopped being busy. In 2008, he co-founded the Senior Follies in Dallas with Mark Carroll, providing seniors with the opportunity to perform and highlight their talents. Since its founding, the Senior Follies has grown every year. A few years ago, Ned took part in the Honor Flight, traveling to Washington D.C. with other World War II veterans to visit the memorial to the war they all share. Recently, his alma mater Penn State called him home to present him with a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts award.
Through it all, Ned, an active member of the King of Glory Lutheran Church, has kept delivering VNA Meals on Wheels, something he intends to keep doing as long as he is able. For years he’s had a partner help him deliver his route, but he keeps outlasting them. His current partner Don has been with him for 10 years.
“I’ve been a salesman most of my life,” Ned says. “I love contact with people. I love the joy of seeing these people, wishing them well. I like to have a prayer with them, or share a song. We’re often the only visit that people have, and it’s so important for people to have that visit, that contact with someone else.”
The only time Ned has stopped delivering VNA Meals on Wheels is when he was receiving them. A bad fall a few years ago put him in the hospital, then home for three weeks of recovery. During his recovery, VNA Meals on Wheels was glad to have the chance to help Ned for a change.
“The meals are really very good,” Ned says, then adds with a smile “Particularly with a little salt.”
More than 50 years of delivering the same route has made Ned a little possessive of it, and of the clients he serves. He has often brought his clients a small gift for their birthdays, or for Christmas. “It’s such a joy to see their eyes light up,” Ned says. “It’s so rewarding to see how grateful people are for your visit. VNA Meals on Wheels means so much to them.”
The door opens, and Ned smiles and greets the man on the other side, 92-year-old Gaspar Ibarra. Gaspar’s English is limited, but not so much it prevents him from thanking Ned, or keeps the two men from understanding one another.
Ned and Gaspar, each with almost a century of experience on this Earth, embrace briefly, speaking together as much as the language barrier between them allows. Ned offers another smile and a few more words of comfort, then he is out the door, humming a tune, a little shuffle in his step, on his way to his next delivery.