If you ever wonder what difference a small gesture might make, just listen to Jerry Crates.
“Just the other day, I was sitting at Kewpee, eating my lunch,” the 85-year-old Lima man said, “and a little fellow, I suppose about 4 foot tall, came in with his mom. He came through that outside door to Kewpee and made a bee line for my table.
“His mom hollered at him, ‘Get back here.’ He stopped, turned around, looked at his mom, pointed a finger at me and said, ‘But Mom, that’s the Candy Man!’”
Crates chuckled for a second at his own story. He continued, “How can you beat that? ‘That’s the Candy Man.’”
If you eat at Kewpee or the Bob Evans Restaurant on Lima’s North Cable Road, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Crates, who retired from the phone company, and didn’t realize it. If you have children and saw him, you definitely know it.
He’s the tall, kind, older gentleman who delights in handing children of all ages a Dum Dum lollipop from Spangler Candy Co. in Bryan. He goes through at least one bag of 180 every week, meaning in an average year he hands out more than 9,000 suckers.
“You always hear good things about Uncle Jerry,” said Dominic Stoner, the general manager of the Bob Evans on Cable, sharing the nickname the staff gave Crates because he felt like part of their family. “When you see him out in public, he’s happy-go-lucky. He always has a smile on his face.”
Crates is such a part of the family at Bob Evans that they talk about him when they train new employees. Waitresses fight over who gets to serve him, but he joked that had more to do with the gold dollars he likes to leave with a tip.
“It’s people like him that make my job worth doing,” Stoner said.
His lollipop donations began at a time you could forgive him for being sad. In 2007, his wife of 56 years, Flo, died at the age of 77. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he tried to keep up some of their routines, including regular trips to the restaurants.
“I thought, ‘Now, Jerry, you can either be doom and gloom, or you can be happy. You can make other people happy,’” Crates said. “So that’s what I’ve done, including passing out suckers at Bob Evans and also Kewpee.”
He also handed them out during bingo games at Baton Rouge and while visiting his mother, Agnes Crates, at Vancrest of Ada.
He had another death in the family last week. He buried his mother on Thursday. Even that gave him a chance to share his gift of suckers and humor, cracking a joke that her living until 102 “gave me something to look forward to, anyhow.”
“At the funeral, I had on a suit coat, and I had suckers in each side pocket,” said Crates, who has three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “When the kids came around, they’d ask, ‘Grandpa, can I get a sucker?’ I’d open up another pocket and say, ‘I’ve got one here.’”
He scoffed at calling his actions generosity. As far as he’s concerned, he gets as much as the candy’s recipient, and it gives him a chance to show his Christianity.
“It’s been very good for me to do this,” he said. “You get the reactions of kids. You see it made them happier, so it made me happier. And you’d be surprised at some of the older people, who’ve really appreciated it.”
He’s cautious to ask parents if he can give a child the treat before he does. He knows there’s a bad connotation, “these idiots, as I’ll call them,” who might want something untoward in return. That’s not Crates’ way, though.
“There’s nothing creepy about it at all,” Stoner said. “When he goes up to talk to people, he definitely goes out of his way to talk to the parents first. He’s really nice about it.”
He doesn’t sample the suckers himself very often. He admits to being a little ornery, though.
“I’m just trying to be an example of a good person. I’d rather be on the happy side rather than the gloomy side,” he said. “If you walk around with a frown on your face, it’ll give you wrinkles. If you have a smile on your face, you don’t get wrinkles.
“I usually make a face at them and say, ‘Is it working?’”
That small gesture of handing out lollipops is definitely making the world a sweeter place.