Kathy Duke, beloved co-director of Biddeford’s Stone Soup Food Pantry, died Tuesday at age 73.
The Stone Soup Food Pantry will open as usual on Wednesday, but there will be nothing normal about the day.
For the first time in more than a decade, the food pantry in Biddeford will run without Kathy Duke, the co-director who worked around the clock to stock shelves, raise money and create a welcoming place where people could ask for help with dignity.
Duke died Tuesday after a short battle with cancer. She was 73.
“We have lost our collective heart, soul and energy,” board members wrote in an announcement on the food pantry’s Facebook page. “Kathy was a loving, caring Irish mother and grandmother who brought that part of her personality into the world of caring for the underprivileged amongst us. … And, with her Irish gift of gab, she changed this organization from a small, bread-based pantry into the all types of food-clothing-furniture and community resource center it has become.”
The food pantry, within blocks of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, provides food, clothing and even furniture to hundreds of Biddeford residents each week.
Duke, who was co-director with Helen Lewis, was known in the community as a tireless advocate for her efforts to raise money and bring in donations. She also was known for quietly inspiring those around her to volunteer, help others and improve their own lives.
Board members described Duke as a “bundle of energy and love” who left a lasting impression on everyone she met.
“She helped so many people. It wasn’t just the turkey drives, the clothes, the food. It was the words of encouragement. It was the ‘pick yourself up and you can do better’ messages. It was all that,” said Bil Moriarty, a Biddeford resident who met Duke while volunteering at the Stone Soup Food Pantry. “This is a massive loss. This is something a lot of Biddeford will feel.”
Scott Wood, a board member, sat alone in the food pantry Tuesday, trying to comprehend the loss of a loving but forceful leader who inspired everyone around her.
“If you can picture an Irish grandmother, that was Kathy. Everybody was hers. It didn’t matter where you came from, she treated you like you were hers,” Wood said. “She would help anybody who walked through the door. She’d stop, she’d listen, she’d act.”
Duke, a slight woman with endless enthusiasm for rallying support to fight hunger, was involved with the food pantry for more than a decade. She was motivated to help others in part by her own experience with hunger as a young mother.
In an interview four years ago, Duke told the story of having only two jars of baby food in her pantry. She fed her 6-month-old daughter first, then ate a jar of baby food peas for dinner. She never ate peas again.
Duke said she wanted to make sure that nobody else was in that position.
As lines at the food pantry grew to record lengths four years ago, Duke said she couldn’t help but think of the people who had no choice but to turn to Stone Soup for help.
“What bothers me is the look in people’s eyes, the not knowing what to do, the lost look,” she said.
Jodi Bissonnette, director of York County Food Rescue, said Duke’s compassion was well known to anybody who crossed her path, including Duke’s six children and the many foster children she took in.
“She never, ever judged or treated anyone differently. She called everyone ‘Hon’ and hugged you,” Bissonnette said.
Bissonnette said it was impressive to watch Duke reach out to people when she asked for donations to the food pantry.
“She could talk a nickel out of a pine tree. She was something else,” Bissonnette said. “People wanted to give to her because of the truth and honesty with which she spoke.”
Former Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey – who calls Duke “Biddeford’s guardian angel” – said Duke touched an incredible number of people in the city and beyond.
“I know the people who work (at the Stone Soup Food Pantry) will step up and keep it going,” Twomey said. “But will there be another Kathy Duke? I don’t think so. The way to honor her is to step up and make sure the food pantries have food and money.”
A fundraising event dedicated to Duke will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21 at City Theater in Biddeford. It will include musical and comedy performances. Financial and food donations for the food pantry will be collected at the door.
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: