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Mamie M. Hatleberg, 83; served food and kindness at her Costa Mesa soup kitchen

June 08, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The front door of the house Mamie Merle Hatleberg grew up in was marked with a large black X, a sign that told hungry coal miners: Here you can find a good meal.

As a child, Hatleberg helped her mother serve those meals; as an adult she ran Someone Cares, a Costa Mesa soup kitchen that offers food and kindness to the homeless, the mentally ill, older people and the working poor.

"When you don't feel good and you have a cup of soup, something about it just makes you feel better. Everyone should have a cup of soup," Hatleberg said.

The work of the soup kitchen was a never-ending task, one that Hatleberg continued for two decades -- through a battle with cancer, five knee surgeries and the experience of losing nearly all of her hearing.

On May 31, she died of heart failure at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. She was 83.

"She was a much-loved person, very genuine," Hatleberg's son-in-law Steve Pezman said. "She always felt, there but for the luck of the draw she could have been [in line] for a bowl of soup herself. She was never judgmental."

But she was firm about one rule: Guests could not be drunk or high on drugs at the soup kitchen. Violators were asked to leave and return another day.

Someone Cares serves 250 to 300 people a day and offers a tutoring program for youths and other services. It is run by a staff of 12 paid staffers and 150 volunteers.

In the mid-1980s Hatleberg was directing a lunch program for seniors at the Rea Community Center in Costa Mesa when she saw the community's need. Children who had just collected canned goods from a nearby food bank would knock on the back door of the community center asking to borrow can openers. Instead, Hatleberg gave them surplus meals.

In 1986, when she was ordered to stop distributing food to children, Hatleberg resigned from her job with the meal program for senior citizens. She bought a pot, made soup and served 30 people the first day.

In the beginning, Someone Cares used the Rea Community Center's kitchen and served meals at the center and churches, but Hatleberg was often forced to move because of neighbors' fears about the kitchen's clientele. Nearby residents protested that the soup kitchen attracted homeless and poor people to their neighborhood.

"I can see both sides; there were some problems," Hatleberg told The Times in 1989. "But there weren't a lot of people hanging around.... These are Costa Mesa people, and we should be taking care of them."

By 1997, Hatleberg had received enough donations to buy a former Chinese restaurant on 19th Street in Costa Mesa to use as the organization's permanent home.

Born in Charleston, W.Va., Hatleberg was one of seven children. Her father was a farmer and a preacher. Her mother operated a boarding house for coal miners.

During World War II, Hatleberg served in the Women's Army Corps. While stationed at March air base, she met and in 1945 married Maynard "Stretch" Hatleberg. The couple had eight children before separating.

Hatleberg lived in San Clemente, as do seven of her children. She is survived by five daughters, Sandy Mamola of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Teri Hatleberg, Patty Glenn, Deborah Pezman and Jeanne Olms; and three sons, Wayne, Maynard and Greg Hatleberg.

During the 1960s, Hatleberg worked in food services at Anaheim Stadium (now Angel Stadium) and became a lifelong fan. Later she volunteered with the American Red Cross.

She never accepted a salary for her work.

"Merle was technically poor while feeding the poor," Steve Pezman said.

In 1998 former President George Bush recognized Hatleberg with a "Daily Point of Light Award."

Her greatest hope, according to her family, was that "one day she would open her doors, and no one would be there."

A memorial service for Hatleberg will be held at 1 p.m. today at the Crossing Church, 2115 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa. Memorial donations may be sent to Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, P.O. Box 11267, 720 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, CA 92627.

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