‘The Food An­gel’ Nour­ished Oth­ers Right Till the End

The Washington Post Sunday - - Obituaries - By Adam Bern­stein

Aco-worker might take homemade brown­ies into the of­fice, per­haps a cake for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. Betty Wen, who ran a private meals-on-wheels ser­vice, had a dif­fer­ent scale of culi­nary largesse.

She stuffed her car with hot dogs, pasta, fried chicken, dough­nuts, cook­ies, fruit and ce­real and toted around pots, pans and fry­ers so she could pre­pare meals at friends’ homes.

It’s per­haps apocryphal — but prob­a­bly not — that she once brought bags of food to her co­work­ers at the Bureau of Na­tional Af­fairs only to have one pipe up that he pre­ferred Rice Krispies to the ce­real she had lugged from the car. She went back to her car and found a box of Rice Krispies.

Wen was a mo­bile gro­cery store, con­trol­ling a move­able feast that ben­e­fited not only work col­leagues and fam­ily but also count­less mem­bers of the ser­vice in­dus­try.

If she got a good bar­gain on Tbone steaks, she’d give them to a gro­cery store cashier on her way out of the Safe­way or Gi­ant.

She’d buy plumbers pizza, and even if their ser­vices weren’t needed, she’d pe­ri­od­i­cally send them $25 or $50 and tell them to buy gifts for their chil­dren.

Still oth­ers who helped her buy cars and fix ap­pli­ances would re­ceive in­vi­ta­tions to her home in Chevy Chase, where’d she’d pre­pare a roast pork din­ner.

John Dove, the lab man­ager at Ed­monds Op­ti­cian in North­west Wash­ing­ton, said Wen had a reg­u­lar route to drop off food at the dry cleaner or drug­store. “My stop,” he said, was Tues­day morn­ings at 11.

“If she couldn’t make it, she’d call us and let us know she had a doc­tor’s ap­point­ment or was fix­ing her hair,” Dove said. But when she ar­rived, she brought enough food to last days, in­clud­ing ro­tis­serie chicken, cold cuts and soups. She also made fried rice.

“She was just a kind old soul,” said Dove, who never charged Wen for glasses re­pair. “It’s a rare com­mod­ity th­ese days.”

“The food an­gel,” as Wen was some­times called, died March 23 at 85 from com­pli­ca­tions of car­diac dis­ease.

At times, you read of lonely peo­ple who plant flow­ers around a city to lessen some abid­ing melan­choly in their heart. By sev­eral ac­counts, Wen was nei­ther sad nor lonely. She had a swath of close fam­ily and friends, al­though she never mar­ried.

Her mother ap­par­ently had dis­cour­aged suit­ors, said Wen’s niece Muriel Hom. A con­tem­po­rary of Wen, Hom said her aunt was gre­gar­i­ous and at­tended USO dances in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing World War II. In time, Wen chan­neled her en­ergy into her work.

Betty Jean Wen was born Jan. 18, 1922, in Wash­ing­ton, where her Can­tonese par­ents set­tled in the mid-1910s. Wen was the youngest of three chil­dren and the only one born in the United States. The fam­ily mem­bers lived above one of the Chi­nese restau­rants they owned.

As a young wo­man, and well into her ca­reer at the Bureau of Na­tional Af­fairs, Wen spent her nights as a book­keeper, greeter and food pre­parer for Chi­nese restau­rants in Wash­ing­ton.

At one, Moon Palace on Wis­con­sin Av­enue in North­west Wash­ing­ton, she was known for giv­ing away ex­tra scoops of ice cream and bring­ing ex­tra bags of food — not left­overs — to starv­ing artists.

Over the years, Wen de­vel­oped a list of ail­ing friends and ac­quain­tances, brought them food and never ac­cepted pay­ment. One wo­man, a BNA li­brar­ian with rheumatoid arthri­tis, died and left Wen $100,000.

Wen did not need the money. Be­fore re­tir­ing in 1999, she’d spent 58 years at the BNA, which pro­duces le­gal and reg­u­la­tory publi­ca­tions, and be­came a su­per­vi­sor in the cus­tomer ac­counts and records de­part­ment. Among the long­est-serv­ing work­ers of the em­ployee-owned com­pany, Wen held about $7 mil­lion in stock, ac­cord­ing to Cyn­thia Bol­bach, a BNA vice pres­i­dent and cor­po­rate sec­re­tary.

Bol­bach was not a close friend of Wen’s but none­the­less was a ben­e­fi­ciary of the food de­liv­er­ies.

“Prob­a­bly ev­ery four to six weeks, there’d be a call from the se­cu­rity guard in the lobby say­ing Betty was down­stairs in her car with bags and bags of gro­ceries, which she brought to the ex­ec­u­tive of­fices,” Bol­bach said. “That was her way to reach out to peo­ple. . . . It was prob­a­bly a lit­tle ec­cen­tric, but it was her way of keep­ing in touch with ev­ery­body.”

Wen was gen­er­ous with more than edi­bles. She did vol­un­teer work at Sub­ur­ban Hospi­tal and Iona Se­nior Ser­vices in Wash­ing­ton and stuffed hun­dreds of dol­lars in the pock­ets of peo­ple she felt needed help, said Hom, her niece. She once gave a gro­cery store em­ployee a six-month-old Ply­mouth that Wen wanted to ex­change for a less-ex­trav­a­gant car.

Wen’s own habits were as­cetic, rarely if ever in­dulging in chic food, trav­el­ing or buy­ing sweaters that cost more than $5. She could be com­pul­sive about coupons, telling her niece, for ex­am­ple, “To­day, I made money,” when a gro­cery store had dou­bled the coupon amount. She es­pe­cially en­joyed sales on laun­dry de­ter­gent and lugged heavy con­tain­ers to her car.

Wen spent her fi­nal days at Sub­ur­ban Hospi­tal, where she’d asked her niece to bring bags of ap­ples and or­anges pur­chased at Costco. Wen dis­trib­uted the fruit to the hospi­tal staff.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

Betty Wen gave away food, cooked for oth­ers and de­liv­ered fruit at Sub­ur­ban Hospi­tal.

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