At 7 a.m. seven days a week, 93-year-old Ed Ball can be spotted near a dumpster at the Elks Lodge in San Mateo.
His morning routine entails sorting through recyclable items — glass bottles, cans and some CRV plastic water bottles — for a recycling program that benefits local veterans. Some days, the pickings are slim. After a big event, however, the World War II veteran usually hits the jackpot.
By partnering with the Veterans Administration's Palo Alto Health Care System, Ball and his friends are able to raise funds for veterans struggling with conditions such as spinal cord injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. It's a cause for which Ball and his crew of 10 say they don't mind getting their hands dirty.
“The veterans are so thankful,” said Ball, a former Air Force officer who served in the 8th Army Air Corps during WWII. “I'm sure that [PTSD] existed back when I was in the Air Force, but we didn't know what it was — there wasn't a name for it. Today, they know what it is and there is counseling for it. Many of the veterans we work with feel very lonely.”
Wearing a zip-up jumpsuit, Ball lifts heavy garbage bins, crushes cans one by one, loads boxes on trucks and tells a joke or two while accomplishing a job not too many people would be excited to tackle at the crack of dawn in 40-degree weather.
“It's kind of unbelievable — Ed is 93 and he's here every day,” Elks Lodge member Dave Marquesen said. “He's such a good guy and he inspires the rest of us.”
The Elks Lodge Traumatic Recovery Program Unit began in the 1980s for Vietnam War veterans. It has grown over the years and currently offers several forms of assistance.
In addition to the recycling program, Elks members bring clothes, puzzles and paperback books to veterans at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park. They also serve cake and coffee once a month in Palo Alto, and host steak dinners at the lodge for veterans in the Menlo Park Traumatic Recovery Program.
“Ed is 100 percent Elk, and he means a lot to many people,” said Elks Lodge member Jim Faber, a retired Navy Star Keeper first class who served on the USS Wiltsie during the Korean War. “I help Ed with the monthly lunches, which are a 'thank-you' to our veterans for their service. I don't know of another man who has done so much for the veterans. The only bad thing I can say about him is that he's a bad liar's dice player!”
Originally from New Jersey, Ball moved to California in 1962. He worked for Western Electric for 33 years while raising two children with his late wife, Nancy. Ball has been a member of the Elks Lodge for 49 years, and he makes an appearance at the San Mateo club almost every day.
“I'm a troublemaker,” Ball said with a grin. “I have 93-year-old legs and a 14-year-old mind. After I finish the morning recycling, I look forward to getting in the Jacuzzi for 10 minutes to work on these tired bones and muscles. Then, I'm ready to start my day. There but for the grace of God, go I.”