Tom Ohling's life took a radical turn when he went to work for Loaves & Fishes, Inc. He remains deeply indebted to Loaves & Fishes for providing the platform for that change and to Erin Hoover Shaw and The Oregonian for articulating part of the journey so well.

Feeding A Deeper Hunger
By Erin Hoover Shaw, of The Oregonian staff

It is our first duty to serve society, and after we have done that, we may attend wholly to the salvation of our own souls.

--Samuel Johnson
18th century English writer and critic

Another lunch has ended at Northeast Loaves & Fishes. Men and women, touched by age but warmed by a good meal, make their way to the door.

From the kitchen, the clanking of pots and pans drifts into the dining hall as volunteers load the dishwasher.

Wearing chef's whites that highlight the gray in his neatly trimmed hair and beard, manager Tom Ohling, 43, pulls up a chair and downs a sandwich. He chats with passing patrons, cracking jokes, calling them by name.

When they're gone, he leans forward, putting his elbows on the smooth white table top. Then the stories start to flow. They are of a place far removed from this one -- a life he gladly left behind, but a time like no other in Portland.

He may be sitting in a senior citizens' lunch hall in inner Northeast Portland, but in his mind, he's back behind the bar at the old Sacks Front Avenue nightclub.

In the summer of 1980, Sacks on Southwest Front Avenue and Yamhill Street was the place to be if you were young and reckless, still reeling from the '70s, not quite ready to cut your hair.

"Sacks Front Avenue, as much fun as you can have in public," the T-shirts said.

They didn't lie.

"Those were the wild times," recalls Ohling, a knowing glint in his gray-blue eyes. "The public at large was exploring the party life."

As general manager at Sacks, Ohling was host of the party. Everyone wanted to know him. Musicians like Robert Cray, Paul DeLay, and Johnny and the Distractions rocked the stage until 2 and stuck around to party until much later.

In return, Ohling brought in the crowds.

"I used to tell the bouncers to let the place get packed like sardines and then let 10 more people in," says Ohling.

It made for some interesting evenings.

Ohling recalls a 50-year-old businessman who came in with a young woman. He was only halfway through his latest long-neck Budweiser at closing time. Ohling didn't sweat it. He simply grabbed the bottom of the bottle and tipped it upside down, the man's hand still gripping it around the middle.

Sputtering, determined to impress his date, the man stood, backed up and executed what started as a karate kick. It ended with him face down, soaking up the floor's ever-present puddle of beer with his business suit.

Then there was the night when a woman, dressed only in shorts, rammed her way past the bouncers, through the crowd and up to the stage, dancing to a tune far different than the band's.

Ohling called the cops. The woman had just run away from Dammasch, the state's hospital for people with mental illnesses.

"You escape from Dammasch and where do you head? Directly to Sacks Front Avenue," says Ohling with a laugh.

It was that kind of place.

Sacks was just one of a half-dozen nightclubs in four square blocks on Portland's waterfront. But Sacks was the center. On hot summer nights, thousands of people would drift from one club to the other, slamming beers, scamming dates, getting high.

It was before the war on drugs. Before AIDS.

Ohling loved mastering the chaos. He loved the scene. But something was missing. He remembers staring out at the partygoers through the bar's smoky haze and thinking, "What are all of you doing here? Isn't there more to life than this?"

Tom Ohling was born in Portland in 1950, but he grew up in Anaheim, Calif. He graduated from high school in 1968, "right in the heart of the peace and love generation," he says, tipping his chair back against the wall of the Loaves & Fishes office. Outside his door, volunteers scurry around preparing meals to deliver to homebound seniors.

Peace and love were not exactly the buzzwords at Ohling's conservative Orange County high school. As a senior, he was suspended for letting his hair creep past the top of his ears. His best friend, former Oregonian music critic Rick Mitchell, was manhandled by the vice principal in charge of conduct for wearing his T-shirt untucked.

"Something happened in there where I got alienated from the mainstream," recalls Ohling.

He, Mitchell and their other friends hung out at each other's backyard pools, cranking the latest albums by The Doors and The Kinks. Rock singers were their poets, and the lyrics told them their alienation from authority was part of something much larger. "You don't know what's happening here, do you Mr. Jones?" asked Bob Dylan.

But come 6 p.m., Ohling would go home and sit down to dinner with the other major influences in his formative years -- his parents.

His father, Bob Ohling, was an executive with a company that made and sold refrigeration devices. He was one of the inventors of the freeze-dry process. He worked seven days a week. His mother, Jane Ohling, was a homemaker, diligently preparing meals for her husband and two children, sewing and doing crafts.

His parents didn't preach the Protestant work ethic. They just lived it.

Ohling was propelled into young adulthood with a set of values on a collision course. He spent years trying to reconcile his drive to fit in to corporate culture with his search for deeper meaning.

A kidney problem sent him off to Fullerton Junior College rather than Vietnam. He majored in business. He began selling records through a catalog on campus but was soon bored.

"I didn't really know why I was at college," he says.

He convinced his parents to fork over his college money and let him move to Portland to open a business with a friend, one of the only black students in his high school. The result was Black & White Records at Southwest Tenth Avenue and Jefferson Street.

It was 1969. Portland was alive with coffee houses, poetry readings and a fledgling music scene. Local bands came by Black & White Records to buy the Stones, Dylan and The Who, and to post their concert bills on the bulletin board.

Ohling met his future wife, Michelle DeShaw, at his store. They got married in 1972 on the beach. He wore gold- and blue-striped bell bottoms and a T-shirt featuring the R. Crumb comic character Mr. Natural. "Nice day for something," it said.

The record store closed just before their wedding.

"At age 19, I knew everything in the world about running a business," says Ohling. "I sent that baby in a power dive right into the ground."

He threw himself into a string of jobs, such as managing Meier & Frank's housekeeping department at Lloyd Center. He liked managing people and his crew worked better and faster because he gave them free time during their shift if they got their job done well early. But he was torn between his work and wanting to be a writer. When he switched to the day shift, he spent his lunch hours at Holladay Park reading James Joyce.

Ohling left Meier & Frank to sell life insurance -- he sold one policy, to himself -- and manage a parking lot. The jobs gave him time to write the great American novel. But when he got to "the lonely room," as he called it, he couldn't make the words flow like his hero Joyce. Anything less wasn't good enough.

He landed in the computer data department of Boise Cascade. In his mind, it was the perfect example of a cold, impersonal corporation, full of slaves to company policy who had sold out in the name of mortgages and two-car garages.

In 1977, Boise Cascade and other paper companies were investigated by the U.S. Justice Department on suspicion that they broke anti-trust laws. No criminal charges were ever filed against Boise Cascade, but Ohling said he got fired for taking documents pertinent to the company's legal defense that he planned to give to the government.

John Sahlberg, a lawyer for Boise Cascade, said he could find no record of Ohling's employment to confirm or deny his statements.

Ohling -- sporting hair past his shoulder blades and Fidel Castro beard -- tried to draw attention to the Justice Department's investigation by picketing outside the company with a sandwich board that said, "Why did Boise Cascade fire Tom?"

His wife called the media. None came.

It was about this time that his high school buddy Rick Mitchell -- who had also moved to Portland -- wanted to leave his bartending job at Sacks Front Avenue. Mitchell convinced Ohling to apply.

Six months later he was promoted to general manager.

Ohling took the job because it combined his ability to manage people, work with music and organize events. Sacks was also a long way from Boise Cascade. It was a small business, close to the ground and the action.

But in February of 1982, Sacks served its last beer. Times were changing. Sacks customers were settling down, starting families. The younger crowd didn't want a bar that catered to guys in flannel shirts and jeans. They wanted to dress up. They wanted brass and glass.

One by one, Sacks contemporaries closed their doors. The Earth. The Faucet. Euphoria. Tipper's. But Ohling didn't blame the trend. He blamed himself.

"I dove straight into drugs and alcohol," he says. From 1982 to 1987, "that was the biggest thing in my life. It was the darkest time absolutely."

Just over 30, his marriage about to end, Ohling rented a room from a friend who owned a crab stand in Lincoln City.

"I said I would work part time for him if I could stay there and just check out," says Ohling.

Later he rode his bicycle down to Monterey, Calif., drinking at bars along the way, crashing for days at roadside motels when his body made him stop. When he got back, he moved between Portland and Lincoln City.

He knew he liked being around food, so he got into restaurant work. He attended chef school and began designing restaurant kitchens and developing menus. He liked the creativity of cooking and arranging food on plates.

"It's an art that has an immediate feedback," he says. "The plate's empty, the customer is satisfied."

But his sense of gratification lasted only about as long as the meals. He felt depressed. He had kicked his drug habit, but he was still drinking heavily.

One day in 1989, a friend told him he should become a monk. Go into a life of service. Ohling laughed, but when he saw an ad in The Oregonian for a part-time caterer at the Burnside Downtown Chapel Loaves & Fishes, he decided to apply.

"I said I'd give them six months, but after that I'd have to get back to my consulting business. There's no way I could really live on that salary," he recalls telling them.

He was wrong.

The first thing he noticed was the elderly patrons didn't have to pay for their meals. They just gave whatever donation they could.

"I said, 'Wow, what a concept. Where's the bottom line?'" he recalls.

An atmosphere of service rather than profit stripped away the indifference or distrust Ohling felt for workers and customers in other jobs. He began seeing them as people -- volunteers who willingly gave of their time and patrons who appreciated the help they received. All of them had stories to tell of the changes they've seen, the communities they helped build.

"They taught me how to be respectful of life and humanity," says Ohling. "They taught me how to make a contribution out of everything I do."

Soon after taking the job, Ohling quit drinking. When Northeast Loaves & Fishes, at 5325 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., opened in 1991, he was named manager. In October, he will become community resources director. Working at the same location, he will do fund-raising and networking with other social service agencies.

But Ohling will still spend his days surrounded by people like Wilbert Lolley, a longtime volunteer who flew with the Tuskegee airmen, an all-black Army Air Corps fighter squadron in World War II, and Roy Vernon, a former railroad dining car waiter who despite his debilitating arthritis, volunteers at the dining hall five days a week. And they seem to like him.

"Tom is beautiful," says Lolley. "He has grown."

Ohling still finds time to write and read poetry -- he hands out copies of T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" to visitors -- and lyrics from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Who still pepper his speech.

If he thought he could get away with it, he would have kept his hair long -- or as he quotes Hendrix as singing, "let my freak flag fly" -- but his job, consulting work and volunteerism with the Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon keep his barber employed.

Sitting in his office, Ohling sees the parallels between Loaves & Fishes and Sacks. The chaos is still there. The phone rings steadily with calls from new volunteers or from the central kitchen checking on the sandwiches that never made it to Ohling's location.

But besides the age of the customers and their orders for skim milk rather than straight scotch, there is one big difference.

"Now there is always something here for me. There are no empty moments. There is no lack of reason," says Ohling.

The clock in the dining hall nears noon and lunchtime. The piano player wraps up her performance with a heartwarming rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Shaking out his shoulders and taking a breath, Ohling strides out of his office and into the dining hall, his 6-foot frame carrying a little more weight than it did in the old days.

He picks up a silver bell and the expectant eyes of the senior citizens, situated comfortably at their tables turn to him. With his broad smile, he rings the bell, welcoming all.



The Oregonian is Oregon's largest daily newspaper. This article was published there in 1993. Since that time the Oregonian has been kind enough to publish two articles by Tom Ohling, a number of articles about Nutrition Magician® and in 2001 Tom was one of the first inductees into the Oregonian FoodDay Hall of Fame.


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Loved by audiences

“Thanks so much for being a speaker at conference. I learned more from your class than all of the rest. ”

— Wilma Hyde, OSFSA Conference

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Honored for commitment to quality education

American Culinary Federation President's Citation to Tom Ohling for education

from The American Culinary Federation

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“Your professionalism, high energy, preparedness and content knowledge made it easy for the group to relate their experiences to your information and motivate change.”

– Scott A. Milam Manager, Clark County District NW Natural

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A part of your team

ACF Good Guy honor to Tom Ohling nutrition educator

The ACF Chef & The Child Foundation Good Guy Award

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Recognized in the community

Firestone 100 national honor to Tom Ohling for service to others

Firestone 100 National Community Service Recognition

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Recognized for excellent childhood education

Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon honors Tom Ohling for childhood education programs

from Chefs de Cuisine Society of Oregon

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