EVANSDALE, Iowa --- You would think Rita Cummings would be tired of cooking for people after raising 10 kids. You'd be wrong.
After years of working in area restaurants as a dishwasher and prep cook, Cummings, at age 77, opened up a place of her own, Red's Diner. It is something she has dreamed of doing for a long time.
The diner, which opened in May and gets its name from its red-haired owner's longtime nickname, also has become a means for Cummings to pursue another of her passions --- helping people.
On Christmas Day, Cummings, with the help of her daughter Pat Jones, will open the diner from noon to 3 p.m. for a free holiday dinner. The diner is supplying turkeys, and K & W Sausage and Specialty Meats is donating ham for the meal.
"We're asking for a free-will offering, but we won't be turning anyone away," Jones said.
The generous gesture does not come as a surprise to those who know the Cummings family. They've been doing things like this for years.
"We were brought up to give," Jones said.
Jones remembers as a child helping deliver meals her mother cooked for people in town, along with baked goods at Christmas time and baskets at Easter. Jones herself initiated and organized the Salvation Army's Christmas dinner a few years ago, which serves about 200 meals annually.
That same spirit is still alive and well at Red's. For Veterans Day, Cummings and Jones peeled and shredded 50 pounds of potatoes for hash browns for the Evansdale AMVETS post annual breakfast. Cummings also has been known to deliver meals to customers who are homebound, and if one of their regulars don't show up for a day or two, one of the women is on the phone checking on them.
Opening the diner, which is open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, has been challenging. Cummings has had to deal with failed equipment, building repairs and replacing a night cook who quit on short notice. And there's her bad knee to contend with.
But her children have stepped in to help. Cummings' son Randy makes repairs, and Jones helps with everything from ordering and cleaning to waiting tables and cooking. She helped fill the void until a new night cook was hired.
In fact, this isn't Jones's first stint at this location. When she was 14, she started working at the A&W resaurant that stood on the same site, making 75 cents an hour.
Brick from the exterior of that restaurant can still be seen in spots throughout Red's.
The diner, which employs 15, is known for its home cooking and generous portions. Daily specials are listed on a whiteboard just inside the front door, and valances in the windows bear a rooster motif. Its window sills are filled with Christmas tchotchkes.
Cummings is proud of what she has accomplished.
"I only have an eighth-grade country school education," she said. "I've done this all on my own. I took my savings and I never borrowed a penny from anyone."
While Cummings is currently leasing the property, she is considering buying it.
"I'm really enjoying it," Cummings said. "Everybody is so friendly and nice.
"Everyone told me I was 77 and too old to do this," she said. "I told them, 'You're only as old as you want to be, and I don't want to be old.'"