Every so often a person comes along, and through their actions, not only changes the lives of the people around them, but also changes the dynamic of an entire city.
That fairly succinctly sums up the impact Willena Skees has had on Leitchfield and Grayson County. For through her devotion to feed the police, fire, EMS and dispatch personnel for the last many years, Miss Willena has brought together departments that many times are at odds, and sometimes uneasily live and work together.
“She worked down at Houchens for 43 years, and she got hooked up with the fire department because we used to go down to Houchens and buy stuff for cookouts or a meal or something,” Leitchfield Fire Chief Jerry Schlosser said.
Never have mundane trips to the grocery store brought about so much good will and change. It was that exposure to the fire department, plus the fact that Skees was very close with the late Leitchfield Fire Chief Ronald Hudson, which was the seed that grew into what Miss Willena now does for those who serve and protect our community.
“When she retired, that was about the time we moved to the new fire station, and so she volunteered to come up here and cook some meals for us,” Schlosser said. “And of course, it really went over big; she enjoyed it and we enjoyed it, and the next thing you know, she was buying stuff for the kitchen to give to us, and buying our food.”
That isn’t a typo -- Skees buys the food, cooks the food, and refuses to take a solitary dime in return.
“She not only prepares meals for the fire department, but she has done so much more,” Schlosser said. “Willena bought kitchen items for Station 1, she bought a coke machine for Station 1, and the list goes on and on.”
It’s rare indeed that someone lives to provide for others without thought of getting something in return. Skees, though, is a sparkling example of selfless giving.
“The money that she spends is astronomical, and the money she uses (to buy our food) isn’t the city’s money,” Leitchfield Police Chief Kevin Henderson said. “Because when she doesn’t cook, she goes to Pizza Hut, or she goes to Mr. Gatti's, or she goes to Captain D’s (and buys our lunch). I know it has to be $200.00 worth of food because she’s feeding 15 people, at least.”
Skees’ generosity with her time and money is almost unfathomable, and causes grown men to blush.
“Of course she wouldn’t take any money, it’s almost embarrassing,” Schlosser stated.
And it’s not just the food Skees buys to cook for the various agencies, her goodwill toward public servants extends to pampering them with gifts.
“For the years that I’ve known her she has brought candy and fruit up to the police department, and she did that before I became chief,” Henderson said. “She brings me stuff all the time. Yesterday she brought me a stuffed police bear. She went to the Smokey Mountains and brought us all back something; key chains and stuff like that. The stuff she does for us is unbelievable.”
Schlosser thinks Skees has made looking out for, and taking care of, the police and firefighters her life’s work.
“Evidently I think a lot of people have a calling in life, and since she retired, taking care of us has been her calling,” Schlosser said.
Another fortunate result of Skees’ fulfilling her calling -- and through her insistence on feeding as many public service personnel as possible -- has been helping form a feeling of community among the public servants in Grayson County.
“In some cities there’s a friction between the police department and fire department and that used to exist here,” Schlosser said. “There was a time when policemen were told to not be out here (at the fire house), but that’s all changed.”
Thanks to Skees’ perseverance, breaking bread with one another has proved to be a bonding agent among the Grayson County and Leitchfield public service agencies.
“She has done so much to bring EMS, the fire department, and the police department and dispatchers together. You just can’t put a price tag on it,” Schlosser stated. “We were never actually together much – police and firefighters – except when we were working together at accidents, fires and so on. Willena would have none of that.”
Seeing a divide among the agencies, Skees wanted her lunches to be all-inclusive. She truly appreciates all that these men and women do, and Skees wants all to be recipients of her good will.
“She started inviting the police officers to come to lunch she prepared five days a week at Station 1, and her cooking is so good, nobody could turn that down,” Schlosser said laughing.”The first thing you know, there were police officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics eating together at Station 1.”
Not wanting to leave anyone out of the bounty, Skees insists on feeding the workers who man the dispatch center, also.
“If there’s food left over, and most times there is, she’ll send (Assistant Fire Chief) Tim Duvall over to the dispatch because they can’t leave; so she sends food over there for the dispatchers,” Schlosser said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Skees’ generosity with her labor and time extends beyond the kitchen.
“Not only does she provide the food and cook every day, she also volunteered to be our janitor,” Schlosser said. “She mops the floor in the kitchen and every day after she leaves, I’ll walk in there and all the chairs are up on the tables where she’s mopped the floor, and she also cleans the lady's restroom."
How does one repay someone for a generosity that is beyond understanding? Skees refuses to accept money, and is unlikely to abide pats on the back. She does what she does because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. But that doesn’t preclude those who appreciate her hard work and dedication from at least trying to repay her for all that she does.
“We try to do things for her, but what do you do for somebody who doesn’t need anything,” Henderson asked. “So we do small things for her. She’s a big … of course we try to talk her out of it … but she’s a big Louisville Cardinal fan. Well, (School Resource Officer) Norman Chaffins, through his contacts with the state police, he knows a guy who is good friends with (Louisville basketball coach) Rick Pitino, so for Christmas we got her a UofL basketball, and Coach Pitino signed it for her.”
But Henderson knows it’s impossible to shower her with enough gifts to even begin to make up for the time and money Skees has devoted to police and fire personnel. Her altruism is beyond repayment.
“The stuff she does for us is unbelievable,” Henderson flatly stated. “Words can’t describe how good she is to us. I mean, rain, sleet, snow; she’s there, she always shows up. And if we can’t show up, if I’m busy through the day and can’t make it to lunch, she’ll box it up and bring it up to the police department.”
Skees' impact on the Leitchfield community is obviously immeasurable. And somehow, just knowing she’s here, walking among us, makes Grayson County a better place to live.