A ticket-taker at Hilton Coliseum, Delbert Van Young loved cooking soul food
A Cubs fan, the "flower lady," husbands, wives, and more are part of the more than 1,400 Iowans lost COVID-19 as of early October 2020. Des Moines Register
Delbert Van Young didn’t cook plain old soul food, he cooked souuuuullll foooooddd, stretching out every letter like they were the sauce he slowly licked from his fingers.
Fried catfish, greens, cornbread; “Food that sticks to your ribs,” he would tell his sister, Edna Clinton.
Cooking became an outlet for Delbert after a medical condition left the then-teenager semi-paralyzed. He never pouted over a reality he couldn’t change, said his sister. Instead, he calmly traded in tennis balls for egg beaters and got to work becoming the best chef he could.
Delbert made every meal an event, Edna offers with a laugh. Even his salads were peppered with the freshest ingredients, served with interesting proteins and topped with tasty dressings; no two were ever the same.
Just the other day, Edna saw a buttermilk pie and reached for her phone to tell her brother, who’d be tickled Patti LaBelle’s Southern delicacies were in the hallowed aisles of Walmart, right there next to Sara Lee. But as she unlocked the screen, she remembered Delbert wouldn’t be on the other end with one of his hallmark chuckles or a “weeeellllll, how about that!”
Delbert died of COVID-19 on July 11 in Ames, where he moved to be near his sister in 2001. The beloved Hilton Coliseum ticket-taker was 59.
Growing up in St. Louis, Delbert’s happiness seemed unbreakable. He was a gentle child, jovial, never known to dwell on the negative. His innate ability to look on the bright side of life always felt like a superpower, Edna said.
“The world could be falling down around him and he’d find something good in it,” she added.
A “bossy baby,” Delbert waited for Edna to come home from high-school and crawled to her as fast as his little legs would carry him as soon as he heard her keys in the lock. “Up! Up! Up!” he would say, flashing his pearly whites.
Before he lost the use of his legs, Delbert loved to play tennis, running across the court and batting the ball back across the net. When his playing days came to an end, he turned to fandom, rattling off tennis standings and St. Louis Cardinals rankings like the ingredients of a recipe, Edna said.
As far as baseball was concerned, Delbert always managed to work the numbers so the Redbirds came out on top, Edna remembered.
When Edna had children, her bossy baby brother became a fierce protector of his extended family, insisting that his nieces and nephews call him “Uncle.”
“Because uncles do more for you than Delberts do,” he said by way of explanation.
“He never made it feel like there were time lapses as far as when he saw his nieces and nephews,” Edna said. “It could have been months since he saw them, or maybe even a year, and he picked up the conversation just where they left it. It was amazing.”
Delbert didn’t seek out attention, but he relished the moments he found his way into the spotlight.
He made such an impression on his assisted-living facility’s staff that one nurse dropped by on her wedding day to let Delbert see her in her dress. When that same nurse later got pregnant, Delbert handed her a list of five names, “his favorites” he told her with a grin.
One of the only times Edna remembers her brother complaining was this spring when the pandemic closed his church. Christianity was central to Delbert’s life, Edna said, and he missed his “church family” terribly.
A regular in the pews and at the pulpit, Delbert didn’t know how to read music, but he memorized songs to sing for the congregation, Edna said.
“Let me put it this way, we are not going to be getting rich off Delbert’s voice,” she added. “But he could harmonize. He had a good ear.”
At Delbert’s funeral, his pastor told Edna that in their last conversation, her brother talked about a dream he had a day or so earlier. In it, he was walking. He could feel the earth underneath his feet, his bones supporting him.
“He knew that in death he would walk again,” Edna said, “and there’s some comfort in knowing he had that sort of peace.”
Delbert had found the good in this latest chaos.
For one final time, he flexed his superpower.
Iowa Mourns is a series of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19 during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.