YORK, Pa. -- When John McHenry made his weekly rounds one recent day, dropping off plastic containers of homemade soup to each of the people on his list, he brought along an unwelcome message.
The 79-year-old York County man plans to retire the weekly deliveries on his 80th birthday at the end of the month. As Mr. McHenry told them one by one that he was ending his 20-year-old routine, they would start to praise his kindness.
And Mr. McHenry would cut them off -- much like he did one Saturday in March while he and a group of friends helped an ill neighbor with yard work. On that day, when Mr. McHenry's friends drew attention to his kindness, Mr. McHenry cringed, and behind his glasses, in the shadow of his baseball cap's brim, he closed his eyes.
He shook his head, then paused. "The story's in the people," he said.
There's the man recovering from cancer after surgery who lives near Mr. McHenry's home in Jacobus.
There's the York couple that doesn't get out of the house much, the wife in her late-80s and the husband in his 90s.
There's the man with the towing business who's had heart trouble, and the man who takes photos for Mr. McHenry's church.
And there was the one lady, Mabel Grove, of Spry, in York, who would stretch her soup delivery so it lasted her all week, adding a little of it to other meals, or thinning it out with other ingredients. She died in 2002.
"I think she was just lonely," Mr. McHenry said. "She wanted me to come visit and I'd always take soup along."
The current soup-savorers, and the dozens who came before, have become part of the story.
But the tale of the soup maker and his hungry faithful started when Mr. McHenry was a child.
"I was a recession boy," Mr. McHenry said one recent morning in his kitchen. He paused as he dipped a long metal spoon into a simmering 5-gallon pot of vegetables floating in a rich, red broth. "We lived on soup."
Mr. McHenry was one of five children, three boys and two girls. He grew up "in the mountains of Columbia (County)." His father died when he was just 10.
His mother, Margaret, whom everybody called Peg, was resourceful. She had to be.
The family was on welfare for a few years after Mr. McHenry's father died. Mr. McHenry's mother used what was available to feed her children.
"When my mother made soup, we never knew what would be in it," he said. "We called it 'Surprise Soup.' "
Soup can be made from almost anything, he said -- even dandelions.
Like his mother, Mr. McHenry is thrifty.
"My name for it is End of the Garden Soup," he said.
He returned to the large steaming pot on his stove, poking at the concoction of carrots, peas, celery and other vegetables inside. Mr. McHenry often makes the soup in the fall using root vegetables like turnips and carrots that are left in the garden. Without a garden to pick from in April, he got what was on sale at the market.
Mr. McHenry learned to make soup from his mother. She had a knack for making bottomless batches of soup. "She always had extra in the pot," Mr. McHenry said.
When someone in the neighborhood was sick or in need of a meal -- whether mourning a death in their family, or living in lean times -- his mother would send him or one of his siblings over with a pot of soup.
Their family wasn't rich, but they made the most of what they had, including a big garden, he said. What didn't go into his mother's soups was canned.
"You could go into our cellar and all you would see was cans," he said, clarifying the food was canned in glass quart jars. "Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds."
Although their family got by on welfare, Mr. McHenry said his mother despised getting a handout from the government.
"She hated the stigma of welfare, she wanted off as soon as she could," Mr. McHenry said. "She breathed easier the day we were off."
That day came when she got a job as a custodian at a local school district.
That's when Mr. McHenry and his siblings had to learn to care for themselves, including preparing their own meals.
"We were always cooking," he said. "My mother was my cooking class."
Mr. McHenry didn't just learn to make soup from his mother. He learned to give it away.
About 20 years ago, while Mr. McHenry was the property committee chairman at Christ Lutheran Church on Queen Street, he started making soup in the church kitchen. At first, only Mr. McHenry and the church custodian ate it for lunch.
Then the pastor tried it. But, Mr. McHenry noted, the pastor couldn't tell his wife at first because she packed him a lunch.
"There were always leftovers," Mr. McHenry said, but no one would take them home. "The pastor already felt guilty because he wasn't eating the lunch his wife made him," Mr. McHenry explained.
So the leftovers went to shut-ins or people who weren't well. Mabel Grove, the church member who lived in Spry, was the first person he delivered to.
It spread from there.
"The people at church were teasing me," he said. " 'Why don't you start doing something [for lunch] for us,' they would say. So I started making soup for Thursday at lunchtime."
He made 10 gallons of soup for the Thursday lunch group. The leftovers went to people with church ties who were sick or in need of a meal. When Mr. McHenry moved to another church, he continued to make soup and deliver it himself.
These days, during any given week, Mr. McHenry makes soup for 15 to 25 people, and then totes it from door to door.
Mr. McHenry noted he's getting older. Though he played down his own health issues, deflecting the attention to others who are worse off, Mr. McHenry said he's getting weak. And "cranky," he added with a smile.
On May 30, when he celebrates his 80th birthday, Mr. McHenry will be using his ladle much less.
He will retire his soup-making, at least on a weekly basis.
"I'll still be making soup when I feel like it," he said. "I'll never stop. But I won't be making 5 gallons every week."
One day in April, Mr. McHenry flashed a warm smile as Brad Hengst answered the door.
"I'm begging for containers," he said. All his soup containers were still out from the previous week's delivery.
Mr. Hengst, 66, greeted him, said he enjoyed the beans and rice from the last delivery, and exchanged his empty plastic container for one filled with the fresh vegetable soup variation.
Mr. Hengst shared that he was recovering well from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, and the two said goodbye.
As Mr. McHenry returned to his white pickup truck, he nodded back toward Mr. Hengst's house. That's why he makes the soup.
"Talking to Brad for a couple of minutes," he said. "Knowing he would do the same for me."
A few minutes and a few miles later, Mr. McHenry stopped in front of Del and Joyce Mummert's York home. Several people were there, preparing for Del's 80th birthday party the next day.
Amid the party planning, Mr. McHenry grabbed a container of soup from the back of his truck and walked inside.
Joyce Mummert said she has multiple sclerosis and Del recently had a heart attack.
She resisted being called shut-ins. She said Mr. McHenry is an "old-fashioned guy," taking care of his neighbors and friends as people did more often years ago.
On his final stop of the day, Mr. McHenry caught up with Franklin L. Franklin an old friend who's like a brother to him. Mr. McHenry often goes to church with Franklin and his wife, Elaine.
When Mr. McHenry told them he wouldn't make soup after his May 30 birthday, Franklin, 85, shrugged his shoulders.
"Eighty years old and he's still making soup for so many people," he said. "Of course, he has to quit sometime. I guess 80 is a good time to quit."
Elaine Franklin, 80, expressed a bit more sadness.
"I cook, but his soup is always so delicious," she said. "It puts mine to shame. Of course we're going to miss it."
And Mr. McHenry will miss making the soup and the deliveries, too.
"I always had the idea you give what you get, you get what you give," he said. "I've got good people [who eat my soup]. After 20 years, I'm family with all of them."