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87-year-old volunteer shows no signs of stopping

George Imoto, right, and Bill Leonheart prepare salad Thursday in the kitchen of the Senior Cafe at the Petaluma People Services Center.

ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat
Published: Monday, December 16, 2013 at 7:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 16, 2013 at 7:25 a.m.

George Imoto, peering through big round glasses, distributed handfuls of salad into more than 40 waiting bowls at the Petaluma People Services Center's Senior Café. Volunteering there is just the latest way the 87-year-old is helping feed Petaluma seniors.

The Penngrove resident began volunteering with Meals on Wheels shortly after he retired. One day a week for nearly 21 years, he delivered meals to homebound seniors. He stopped only after he fell and injured himself while making deliveries.

Shortly after that, he decided he should no longer drive on account of his age, but he soon resumed volunteering, this time at the Senior Café. A neighbor and close friend, Mary McCarthy, drives him now.

When asked how long he plans to continue, he said, "Until I can't move."

"He's running circles around me," McCarthy said with a laugh as she watched Imoto add tomato slices to the salads.

McCarthy and her family moved into Imoto's Penngrove neighborhood about eight years ago. The first person they met was Imoto, who walked down the block to greet them carrying two bucketfuls of apples and pears.

Soon after, Imoto's wife fell ill, and McCarthy's family was there to help. McCarthy's son now calls him "Grandpa."

"George has many families," said Tracy Gentry, PPSC's kitchen manager, who has worked with Imoto for eight years. Her 15-year-old son has become "ice cream buddies" with the older man, sitting on his porch to enjoy a scoop of Imoto's favorite food from time to time.

Imoto was born in Pismo Beach but moved with his parents to Penngrove in 1930 when he was a young child. His family ran one of many egg farms in the area.

But in 1942, during World War II, Imoto's family was sent to a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado. He was 16 and spent two years there.

After his release, he was drafted into the Army and spent two years as a colonel's driver. He said he resented his treatment by the government, but there was a silver lining: His position as "the colonel's man" allowed him to tell other officers what to do.

After his discharge, he returned to work on his parents' chicken farm, where he remained until the larger, industrial egg producers forced them out of business. From then until retirement, he drove trucks in California and Nevada.

Imoto, used to being busy, soon began looking for volunteer work. An acquaintance recommended Meals on Wheels.

"I help as much as I can," he said Thursday, garnishing his salad bowls with croutons. After his work was done, he sat down with the other volunteers and seniors for lunch.

When asked about his favorite aspect of volunteering, he said quickly, "The company. They are beautiful people." Then he added, with a creeping smile: "The ice cream."

(You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com.)

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