On a Wednesday morning, Mike Hutto wielded a long-handled ladle that looked like a small paddle, stirring some 45 gallons of a hot, creamy concoction he called his “Mystery Soup”.
I asked him what the recipe for the soup was.
“Whatever we got in the back,” he chuckled.
The wry 62-year old who was raised in Washington Carver Village will be retiring soon from his job as manager of The Soup Cellar at Washington Street United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia.
Monday through Friday, beginning at 10:45 a.m., the soup kitchen is Ground Zero for almost 200 homeless and hungry human beings and for nearly 10 years, Hutto has kept the soup hot, the line moving, the volunteers organized and the hungry fed.
But for all of that, you won’t hear Hutto waxing poetic about his role in easing the plight of the city’s homeless population.
Instead, you’ll be offered a smile and a sense that he is simply going about his business in an “office” overrun with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and people wearing knit hats, heavy coats and weathered faces.
“Mike is full of compassion but he knows the people we serve and how to deal with them,” said volunteer Lynda Neese. “He’s disciplined and compassionate at the same time. He can joke with the homeless and he can be firm with them when he has to.”
I asked Hutto if city fathers had talked to him about the city’s homeless population as solutions to the situation are cast about.
“No, shore haven’t,” he said.
So if he were asked?
“Some of these guys want to work. We need to be putting ’em on a little plan. Put them in some kind of training. Find them something to do. I see a lot of the same faces every day. Some new.”
And on a recent damp, cold Wednesday, all ready for a hot meal.
“Mike is a realist,” volunteer Gary Miller said. “He sees his job as accepting the homeless as they are and providing them the nourishment that they need to get through another day.”
Hutto is also a source of humor in a situation fraught with a whole lot less than funny, Miller said.
“One day a man came through the line and asked, ‘You don’t have a meat sandwich?’ Mike said, ‘Look, this ain’t no Burger King. You can’t have it your way.’ ”
But you can know that Hutto is all-the-way when it comes to managing a daily feeding operation with a volunteer corps from 16 churches in the Columbia area.
I asked Robbie Douglas, business manager at the church, what Hutto has meant to the soup kitchen and the almost 200 unpaid helpers who operate it.
“They love him. As a volunteer, you’ve got to feel good about the place you’re going to volunteer and Mike does that. He’s the person that has the personal relationship with the volunteers and with the homeless and the hungry. He’s the glue.”
And he will surely be missed by those who serve and those who are served in the basement of the big brick church on Washington Street.