‘The Food Angel’ Nourished Others Right Till the End
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.
Betty Wen gave away food, cooked for others and delivered fruit at Suburban Hospital.