EVERETT — If Jim Rowell’s career as a cook could be measured in meals served, the trays would stack a half-million high.
After 22 years, Rowell prepared his last meal as head cook at the Everett Senior Center on Oct. 30: spaghetti with meatballs, garlic bread and salad.
The 81-year-old fed an average of 100 people a day, five days a week for more than two decades — and that was just at the senior center. Before that, the Arlington man worked 20 years as a cook for the U.S. Navy and another 20 for Safeway as a meat cutter.
Now, for the first time since age 9, Rowell isn’t working.
“It’s strange,” he said Tuesday. “I get up in the morning and I think, ‘What am I going to do now?’ ”
At the senior center, it’s clear Rowell did more than fill bellies.
He became a beloved institution at the senior center, said his boss, Martha Peppones, a nutrition director with Senior Services of Snohomish County.
Everybody knows Jim’s name and he knows theirs, she said. He kept a spotless, shipshape kitchen. Diners could count on Rowell for homey fare such as chicken ala king, lasagna and casseroles.
“He’s the kind of person who cooks good comfort food,” she said. “He’s not a gourmet, New Age cook. Whatever he is going to make is going to be good.”
Ed Morris of Everett, who regularly eats at the senior center, loved the cook’s cheese souffles and sweet potato fries.
“He always seemed to be smiling,” Morris said.
Rowell, who oversaw volunteers in his paid position, has a talent for making people feel special. He treated the diners at the senior center like family. After everyone filed in for a hot lunch, he would grab the microphone to announce the menu. He became well-known for crooning “Happy Birthday” when needed.
He was the first to arrive in the morning, said Jerry Hebert, a program coordinator for the senior center. Rowell came earlier than he had to so he could bake muffins and sell them. The money would go into a special fund to pay for extras for the senior center, including a new television.
“We aren’t replacing him because he can’t be replaced,” Peppones said. “We found another person to cook at the site.”
Rowell found his vocation early.
He was raised in Georgia, and at age 9 his father died. Rowell had to work full time doing manual labor to support his mother and his two younger siblings. For awhile he tried to keep up with school but eventually dropped out.
At age 16, he talked his mother into changing his date of birth in the family Bible so he could enlist in the U.S. Navy early.
He was initially assigned to the deck crew on a naval cruiser where he chipped paint, swabbed the deck and washed bulkheads.
“I started looking around, and it seemed the cooks had the best deal,” he said. “They were lounging around and looking at the passing scenery. I thought, ‘Hmmmm. Why couldn’t I do that?’ ”
Rowell eventually got his way after persistence and months on mess duty, dishing up meals to 1,100 hungry sailors a day and cleaning up the mess hall. He convinced his boss he had the physical stamina to cook in the galley by hoisting and dumping a huge tub of potatoes into a 60-gallon kettle. Once in the galley, he learned his trade: he cut meat, iced cakes and pulled piping hot loaves of bread from the ovens, trying not to burn his arms as the ship rolled under him.
It was hard, physically demanding work but Rowell knew hard work. He found he loved cooking — or more accurately, he loved feeding people.
“It’s the satisfaction of turning out a good product and seeing people enjoy it, especially if they tell you they do,” he said.
When Rowell was visiting San Francisco when he was 18, he met and fell in love with the woman who became his wife, Susan. They married just two weeks after he caught sight of her at a United Service Organizations hall. Two children quickly followed.
Rowell read in his spare time and he eventually earned his GED. He was promoted to chief petty officer before he retired in 1964. Still a young man, he embarked on a career as a meat cutter for Safeway and in 1969 moved to the Northwest.
At his home, he cooked the meals, including a family favorite: hot dogs, mac and cheese and bread pudding.
He found his way to the senior center in 1987. He initially worked for senior services as a relief cook but people liked him and his food so much, they kept him at Everett’s senior center.
Someone else has stepped in to cook at the senior center, a young woman who also learned her vocation on a Navy ship. Other things are changing at the senior center, too, including a dining room and kitchen remodel.
Rowell said he is looking forward to time with his wife and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He’ll come back to visit when the new cook has settled in.
“That was the best job I ever had.”
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, firstname.lastname@example.org.