Sally Deese cooked for thousands each year because God told her to

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Staff Column

By Greg Summers

Sally Deese created one of Lancaster County’s most enduring social and spiritual traditions after, in her words, God gave her a direct order one day in 1989.
For the next quarter century on the Sunday before Memorial Day, she fed the county’s older folks outside her Buford farmhouse, buying and cooking all the food herself. Her Golden Age of Merit Dinner soon included thousands each year, with cars and buses jamming the back roads.
“To see old folks happy and enjoying themselves is my life,” she once said, describing the dinner as her ministry. “It’s what I live for.”
Sally Deese died Sunday night after a short bout with cancer. She was 75.
I will miss her smile so much.
One hot July day, I was working away in the yard near the end of my driveway when I heard a car horn blow.
I looked up to see Sally’s white, four-door 1967 Ford passing by. And true to form, she smiled and waved to me as always.
Sally had cut through Rowell Road on the way back to her Four Oaks Farm home on Walnut Road after leaving her beloved Rose Hill Baptist Church.
I just can’t call her Deese or Mrs. Deese, as we usually would in the newspaper. I attempted that in the past, and even tried “Miss Sally,” as we sat on the porch of her little blue house, but she wouldn’t hear of it. It was a lost cause.
“Oh, it’s just Sally,” she said, smiling. “You gotta call me Sally.”
I was allowed, however, to say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” when I talked with her – proof, she said, that “somebody raised you right.”  
Well, that sweltering July afternoon, Sally pulled into my driveway for a chat about some watermelons she had growing in a round bale of hay.
Never one to play it safe, Sally even tried to grow coffee and banana plants in her yard. 
“You need to come see it,” she said, of the planting method that she considered divine intervention.
I did go see it and wrote a story about it. Yep, watermelons growing in a hay bale.
“I said, ‘God, I know this is you. I couldn’t come up with nothing like this on my own,’” she explained. “When somebody asked me how I did it, I just tell ’em it’s not me. It’s God.”
Those words apply to Sally’s life in more ways than one.
For some 25 years, Sally opened the gates at her farm once a year and welcomed everyone 55 and older who wanted to eat.
Sally, the oldest of 14 children and a retired caterer, did almost all the work herself, noting that “when God tells you to do something, it’s not very hard.”
Seeds for the dinner were planted in 1989 during a Rose Hill worship service. Sally, who taught Sunday school and was the church janitor for more than 50 years, said God spoke during the church service that morning and told her what to do.
“It was my burning bush,” she said.
Then, before the sun went down that day, Sally heard God’s voice two more times inside her home and the third time, she said, “he spoke with force.”
And from that day on, acting on faith, she organized and stated the Golden Age of Merit Dinner. There was only one rule – children were not allowed to attend, not even her own grandchildren.
Within a few years, the crowds became enormous, though it eventually shrank to about 300-400 guests. It was no easy feat preparing and serving thousands of meals. First, Sally paid for all the food.
“God is so good that sometimes, he’ll surprise you,” she said. “I’m not in a strain for money. I have faith in the Lord in everything I do. With God, you can’t have any doubts, so I never worry.”
Sally also did all the cooking, though family and friends helped with the serving underneath a backyard picnic shelter that was built just for the occasion.
It’s not that others wouldn’t help. Sally wouldn’t let them and insisted on doing all the cooking herself.
Much of the prep work for the dinner was done in advance and kept on a borrowed refrigeration truck. Sally did the cooking on a commercial 22-burner stove that was donated to her by Duracell after the battery maker quit serving meals in its employee cafeteria.
And Sally served quite a spread, ranging from meats and vegetables to desserts. She also prepared foods for those with special dietary needs so “nobody gets left out,” and nobody ever did.
I asked her once why she wouldn’t allow anybody to help with the cooking and got an eye-opening answer.
It wasn’t because she was selfish. She didn’t want anybody to miss Sunday morning worship at their respective churches to help.
“It wouldn’t be right for them to miss that,” she told me in a 2009 interview.
Della Deese came by the newspaper office Monday morning to let me know that her mom had died from cancer that was discovered in August.
Knowing what it feels like to lose a mother, I gave Della a big hug.
Sally’s funeral was Tuesday at her Four Acres Farm, the place she called home.
Now, Sally is calling another place home. And if there is any cooking there to be done there, I know what she’s up to. 
That, and smiling.