By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Manuel “Manny” Odom’s smile was contagious. His friendship was a gift. And his cooking? What a treat to sample one of his specialties, cookies he called Odom family teacakes.
Ask anyone who knew this extraordinary man. There are many of us. Odom was a collector of friends.
“He was just somebody with a wonderful friendliness — you don’t find it in anybody,” said Sue Bell, Odom’s wife of 37 years. “He had a true, accepting friendliness that was so unusual.”
Odom died April 10 after a struggle with kidney disease. He was 87. He lived with his wife in the Lord’s Hill area of Snohomish.
I happened to meet Odom in 2002 at Everett’s senior center, now the Carl Gipson Senior Center. He was part of a writers’ group there, and had penned a poem titled “Old Man in a New Age.” And I have written about him before, most recently in 2008 after Barack Obama won his first presidential race.
Odom shared some of his life’s hardships. He was one of 13 children raised in the segregated South, in the Texas town of Wiergate. In 2008, he looked back on childhood in the town near the Louisiana border.
“There was a library, but black people couldn’t go in,” Odom said the week Obama was elected. “I showed up twice. The librarian said, ‘We don’t serve coloreds.’ I said ‘Why?’ She said, ‘That’s just the rules.’?”
At 14, he left home. Hitchhiking north, he ended up in Boston. Bell said her husband was taken in by a couple there. “The woman’s husband worked at the Parker House Hotel, so he went to work there — peeling potatoes,” she said.
Lying about his age, he joined the Navy at 16. He worked at an ammunition depot in Virginia. During the Korean War, he served in the Army. He was married previously. Along with his widow, he is survived by four children, eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild and three siblings.
The military brought him to the Northwest, his wife said. He went on to work for Boeing, graduate from the University of Washington, and teach math, psychology and black studies at Highline Community College. He also taught math in the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex.
“He was really quite learned,” Bell said. He enjoyed reading theology books and doing calculus just for fun. “He liked to study,” Bell said.
A man of faith, Odom was an active member of the Monroe Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. He had also volunteered at Everett’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, where he helped cook meals for people in need.
“He was a really giving person,” said Hans Dankers, a retired family doctor who worked 32 years in Monroe. More than two decades ago, Dankers and Odom helped start a men’s group at the Monroe church. And they attended an annual United Church of Christ men’s retreat in Port Orchard.
“He baked the Communion bread for all the years I’d known him. He was a great cook,” Dankers said. “For the last five years, the second Saturday of each month, we had a men’s breakfast. Manny would do the pancakes. And Manny always did this ham for the men’s group Easter breakfast.
“We always totally relied on him,” Dankers said. “For the March breakfast, he was a little late. The rest of us didn’t know how to light the gas stove. For Easter breakfast, I realized we didn’t know how he did his ham.”
In the men’s group, Dankers said Odom “was a little bit of an instigator.”
“It stimulated the conversation,” Dankers said.
When I met Odom in 2002, it was just before Christmas. In the middle of the writers’ group meeting at the senior center, Odom announced he had a song. With that big smile, in a rich voice, he sang: “Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why — Santa Claus is coming to town.” It was delightful.
Bell rarely went grocery shopping with her husband. “He knew so many people, it always took hours. He had to stop and talk,” she said.
“He was a wonderful man. He will be missed, especially this Easter,” Dankers said.
A memorial service for Manuel “Manny” Odom is planned for 1 p.m. May 26 at Monroe Congregational Church, 301 S. Lewis St., Monroe. The couple always hosted their many friends at a Memorial Day barbecue. This year the barbecue will celebrate Odom’s life.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.