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Grumpy Old Men invite public to 'open house'

RIVER FALLS--It began just after Thanksgiving 20 years ago when retired 3Mer Jerry Carter began collecting blankets for local churches to distribute.

A few years later, Carter was collecting coats, socks, sweaters, gloves, mittens and long undies for winter distribution for those in need.

After five years of annual collection drives, Carter added a junior partner, Mel Germanson.

The two soon noticed how the River Falls Food Pantry, then housed at Ezekiel Lutheran Church in River Falls, had bare shelves just before the holidays.

Thus began their annual food drive, which has gone on ever since and still benefits the River Falls Community Food Pantry, now located at 222 N. Main St., River Falls.

Along the way Carter, now 80, and Germanson, 79, dubbed themselves the "Grumpy Old Men," after the movies in the 1990s made by the late Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

In recent years, Carter and Germanson added "a younger apprentice," Karen Kielsas, from WESTconsin Credit Union.

"Karen has a very important role to fulfill, but it will take many more years for her to become an official member of the Grumpy Old Men," Germanson insisted.

Last year, the Grumpy Old Men and Kielsas took in a record $8,314 in cash contributions and hauled 10 pickup truck loads of donated goods to the River Falls Food Pantry.

As always, the three are assisted by Kent and Dorothy Frederick, who take the donated bags and boxes dropped off at Veterans Park in River Falls to the food shelf.

"I have truly enjoyed doing this for two days each year," Carter said. "It looks like we'd be freezing our whatever off out there, but you don't even think of that because you're having a good time seeing all the people who stop by.

"You can't help but be filled with appreciation for how people leave their homes, go shopping and bring stuff out to us. It's really beautiful."

Germanson believes the Grumpy Old Men's food drive has raised visibility about the ongoing value and needs of the River Falls Food Pantry. He adds, humbly, he and Carter may even be trendsetters.

Germanson said when the two men started their gig, there were few public charitable collections. Now many school, church, business and service groups hold them.

"I think that what we do, standing in the middle of downtown, in the cold, all day, for a cause like the food shelf, made people in our community more aware of how this kind of giving works," Germanson said.

Carter and Germanson say that, with high unemployment and home foreclosures, the food pantry's mission can't be overstated.

"These are almost depressing circumstances," Carter said. "Money providers have been laid off in some families and people are hurting. Our community has to step forward."

Rick Pechacek, past board president for the food pantry who still volunteers there, said Carter and Germanson are absolutely right.

"Demand for assistance the last year has greatly increased," Pechacek said. "It's just plain and simple a bad economy. Households are struggling to get by. Many can't put enough food on the table. We have families showing up here with three and four kids to feed."

Pechacek asked donors to the Grumpy Old Men at Veterans Park to visualize what they will give.

"What would you put on the table at home to serve your family a meal in the evening?" he said. "Imagine that, and then go out and buy those items, and bring them to Jerry and Mel.

"I'm not talking about an elaborate meal like lobster or T-bone steak. It could be macaroni and cheese with a pound of hamburger, or a bowl of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, but whatever it is, think of a meal to prepare and then donate those things for the food pantry."

Pechacek said the operative word is "food."

"We need to put food into people's stomachs, especially for kids," he said. "Some of them are going to bed in our community without a sufficient amount to eat. I want that to end."

The Grumpy Old Men do accept cash and check donations to the food pantry. That money has added value because it buys bulk purchases at bargain prices from nonprofit food networks.

Because many people bring their kids to give away donations, Carter and Germanson keep a stash of candy canes at Veterans Park to pass out.

For those driving north on Main Street--on the opposite side of Veterans Park--and who stop, know the Grumpy Old Men claim they're still able and willing to hustle over to the median to accept a cash donation or unload a package of goods.

"Just pull over, wave to us and we'll come running," Carter said.

When it comes to food pantry contributions, Germanson and Carter say they're beggars and they're not choosy.

"We're running an open house," Carter said. Added Germanson: "Please come down and see us. All visitors are welcome."