March 2003

Edgar E. De Gasper


by Joseph H. RADDER

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At age 80 he flies his own airplane, travels the world to evaluate Army field kitchens, and is looking forward to the 55th reunion of his Cornell University class of 1948.

He spent thirty-three years as Director of Food Service for the Buffalo Board of Education. He is a graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and took graduate student courses in the history of education and adolescent psychology at Canisius College. Only one person in the world could fit that description and that’s Edgar De Gasper.

Actually he grew up in food service. His mother, a native of Colorado and his father, who was born in Alsace-Lorraine, owned and operated the Riviera Restaurant on Pearl street in the early days of the theater district. The oldest of us will remember its ambience and the fine food served there.

One of his early memories takes him back to age eleven. “My father gave me a job washing dishes, which was fine, except I was too short. So he fastened some wooden beer cases together and made a runway for me back of the dishwashing machine, and I became the best damned dishwasher in Buffalo.”

He had planned to go to the University of Buffalo. “I was going to be a doctor and my brother Kenneth was going to be a lawyer” he remembered. But one day his father came back to the restaurant after hearing a speech by the head of the hotel and restaurant school at Cornell University and asked him how he would like to go to Cornell.

Edgar thought back, “ I didn’t have any idea where Cornell was but I did know it wasn’t in Buffalo.” And like most seventeen year olds, living away from home sounded like an exciting adventure.

The war was under way in Europe and America was gearing up for defense. Pilots were desparately needed for the Army and Navy air corps. While at Cornell DeGasper and a friend heard that a federal government program, Civilian Pilot Training, was offering free flying lessons. To make a long story short, they signed up and Edgar got his private pilot’s license on December 1, 1941, just six days before Pearl Harbor.

During the war, DeGasper was a Marine pilot. In fact, he still proudly wears his Marine wings. He took ground school instruction at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then basic flight training at the Naval Air Station at Glenview, Illinois as a Naval Cadet. He got his wings after advanced flight training at Corpus Christ, Texas, on his 21st birthday and spent twelve months as a flight instructor there. After two tours of combat duty in the Pacific Theatre he was relieved of active duty as a Captain U.S.M.C. at Cherry Point, North Carolina. After the war he became a commercial airline pilot for Braniff but eventually became bored with that career. “After flying in combat” he said, “that was like driving a bus.” So he went back to Cornell to finish his food service education.

He kept up his flying as a hobby, however, and with his brother, purchased an airplane. He remembers one harrowing experience in a small plane. “We had been at a conference in the Thousand Islands” he said. “On the way home the next day we ran into some just terrible weather. We kept going north and south to try to go west but we couldn’t get through the thunderstorms and lightning. We had 3 1/2 hours fuel on board. The flight normally is only an hour and a half, but all the airports were closed . Eventually, we ran out of gas and landed in a cornfield alongside the Thruway.”

That event was in 1970, the same year Edgar met and later married Beatrice Keenan. Both Edgar and Beatrice had children from previous marriages, so they now have six children, all grown up, and five grandsons, ages twelve to twenty-one.

Except for his years in the Marines, DeGasper always utilized his food service education, first by managing Howard Johnson’s on Delaware Avenue. Later he would become manager of the the Knights of Columbus, and then the Bethlehem Steel Club. After a stint there, he applied for a position at the Brookfield Country Club. They couldn’t pay the salary he was worth, so they offered him a part-time job as manager, allowing him to keep his Bethlehem Steel Supervisor’s Club job, also on a part-time basis. The schedules of both clubs dove-tailed pretty well with a few exceptions like Valentine’s Day.

Eventually good fortune smiled on Edgar, however. Peter Gust Economou of the Park Lane was a friend of Edgar’s family, and he had given Edgar summer work while he was in college. That was good experience because he worked almost every job from the telephone switchboard to chef. “Peter and I became very close as a result. I became his right hand boy.” He remembers a motto Peter Gust had posted in the Park Lane kitchen: “A good reputation is gained by many acts, and lost by one.”

Later on, Peter Gust would serve as a member of the Buffalo Board of Education . When the position as director of food service for the school system opened up in 1957, Peter Gust urged DeGasper to apply for the job. As it turned out he would head up the Buffalo Schools’ food service for thirty-three years;

He retired in 1990. A wall full of awards and honors attests to the fact that he was a unique achiever both before and after retirement. He was elected International President of the Food Service Executives Association on three separate occassions and received that organization’s highest award, the Dignified Order of the Dinner Gong, named after the organization’s original logo. The initials DODG were to be engraved on the medal he received when stepping down from the international presidency, but the engraver made a mistake and left out the second D, so it reads Edgar DeGasper, DOG. They wanted to have it corrected for him but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I’ll be the only one with a dog tag” he said. And to this day that medal is an amusing conversation piece for him.

Like so many of the people we spotlight under the Forever Young and Active heading, DeGasper stays young by serving his country as an honorary Brigadier General in the Army, evaluating field kitchens all over the world.

Indeed. Edgar DeGasper has made many contributions to his fellows, and continues to do so at age 80. Thank you, Edgar, for a lifetime of service.

 

Joseph Radder, a regular contributor to Living Prime Time, is the author of a new book, “Young Jesus, the missing years”, a fictional biography of a young Jew named Jesus.

 

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