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A volunteer for the ages
the volunteer pic
Marshall Lazar cuts and bags pastries for the United Samaritans Foundations Daily Bread Lunch program. Lazar has been a faithful volunteer for over five years. - photo by PAUL ROUPE/The Journal

For the past five and a half years, 91- year-old Marshall Lazar has been volunteering at the United Samaritans Foundation in Turlock.

Monday through Friday, he pulls up in his clean white Monte Carlo, ambles up the street and into the kitchen.

It’s a few minutes before 10 a.m., and for the next two hours, he’ll plant himself behind one of the rectangular steel tables and slice loaves of pound cakes and muffins—cinnamon, chocolate cran, butter pound and pumpkin streusel—into symmetrical pieces. Then they’ll go into lunches that the Samaritan trucks will deliver to their designated daily spots.

Though the other volunteers and workers are chatting and moving with a flurry of activity, Marshall goes about his business as if he’s the only one in the room. He walks to the sink, grabs two latex gloves out of a box, and puts them on with the care of a doctor prepping for surgery. Then he disappears into the warehouse, returning moments later with two empty milk crates. The trays of pastries are stockpiled on the table next to the sandwich bags and knife.

He is slender, six-feet tall and impeccably dressed, with an unzipped navy blue jacket over a Pendleton shirt, which he tucks into a pair of crisp khakis. On his head sits a white bucket hat, but it doesn’t diminish his sense of professionalism.

He stands over the table, opens the first tray, and starts to cut. As he twists the baggies, methodically drops the slices into the crate, it’s not hard to imagine how he would have worked as a strong and virile young man.

It seems like a lifetime ago that Marshall packed melons for the Turlock Fruit Company. Born and raised in Turlock, his father had a melon stand and, as he says, “I’d been around melons all my life.” His disciplined work ethic showed early on, and he’s proud of the $1.75 per ton earnings he got from the fruit. 

“Nobody could beat me at packin’ melons,” he insists without a hint of hubris.

He’s brimming with an amiable aura, the kind of gentle soul that you’d have trouble digging up dirt on if he were running for public office.

There are no stories of a wild youth, troublemaking or regrettable decisions. His dad was an assistant preacher at the Assyrian Presbyterian Church, and he remembers how his father instilled in him morality and goodness.

“He didn’t go for any monkey business,” he says.

As adulthood approached, he joined the Naval Reserves, and a month shy of his 18th birthday he was sent to the Philippines. World War II was drawing to a close, but he still fought in two battles in the South Pacific, and the Navy discharged him a year after the war was over.

When he returned home, he went to Modesto Junior College and graduated in 1948. Then, at the suggestion of his brother, he attended the University of Southern California. But that only lasted a semester. He quit and went back to the melon business, until he decided to get into real estate at 32.

That’s where he found his career. Starting off in sales, he moved his way up to broker, and soon he was in charge of a two-man office. He married, had two daughters, and set himself up for a life free of financial obligations.

Even with all his success, he never let it swell his ego.

“I came from a poor family,” he says. “But I started from scratch with no help from anyone. Money never went to my head. It just came naturally…I was a good businessman.”

All the while he maintained his sense of self and didn’t succumb to vices a man in his position could easily get lost in.   

He’s never smoked or drank alcohol, never been on the wrong end of the law. He eats well and enjoys chicken sandwiches from Burger King. Every Saturday he and his wife of 23 years, Rosie, who suffers from dementia, go to Hometown Buffet for dinner.   

He still attends church every Sunday, and if he does watch T.V. “it’s something interesting…clean…something you can learn.” He tunes into a Christian station in the evenings, devoting his spare time to scripture and quiet reflection.

Another thing that keeps him going is his volunteer work. He loves the people and the organization at United Samaritans. Everyone loves him and treats him kindly.

Fale, a 10-year volunteer, walks by a studious Marshall, his head down in concentration.

“When he works, he’s very professional,” she says. “He’s hard-working and always on time. If he has a doctor’s appointment or something, he’ll call in.”

She glances over at him and smiles admirably. “Always until 12 o’ clock,” she says.

Just then, Marshall checks his gold-banded watch.

It’s 11:50.

He hasn’t slackened his pace. He moves only to retrieve some more pastries from the warehouse or to toss the empty trays in the recycling bin.

He cuts, bags, twists, drops until the second crate is nearly full. With just a few minutes left, he slices the last muffin, cleans his station and washes his hands. He slides a battered orange stool, which stood unused inches from him the whole time, to the counter near the sink.

“Bye Marshall,” say a few scattered voices from the kitchen. He returns goodbyes, waving his hand as he leaves.

Now he’ll return home to his wife. Though he has been grateful for everything in life (he’s pleased that he still has all his teeth), he laments that at his age mostly everyone he has known and loved is gone. But he has to keep moving.

“I don’t like to be inactive,” he says. His volunteer work will continue as long as his mind is sound.

“I’m at an age where the Lord can take me anytime. I didn’t care for a long life, but if this is what God chooses, then I’ll continue.”