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Aid gives his heart to cook for victims

Former airman and current Red Cross volunteer Doug Scarlett came all the way from Tennessee to help Superstorm Sandy victims. Photo courtesy American Red Cross
TimesLedger Newspapers

While most hurricane helpers who donated time and energy to storm aid received accolades for their hard work, Doug Scarlett ended up with heart attack symptoms and a night in the emergency room.

After spending more than a month managing a Red Cross kitchen in New Jersey and visiting many of the hardest-hit areas, including Breezy Point and the Rockaways, the 65-year-old volunteer from Knoxville, Tenn., was forced to focus on his own health for a change.

“Apparently my blood pressure is high,” the hardy Scarlett said from a hospital bed in Murphysboro, Ill. “I usually handle stress well. I think I’m just tired and I need to catch up on some sleep.”

Scarlett had been running on minimal sleep since the first days following the storm. The night after Sandy hit, Scarlett jumped in his truck at 8 p.m. and drove straight through from Knoxville, arriving in New Jersey at 10 a.m. the next morning. He was immediately put in charge of kitchens across the tri-state area, first serving hot meals to clients in New Jersey and then helping Emergency Response Vehicles bring meals and supplies to people in the Rockaways.

With some 70 people working directly under him, Scarlett oversaw food preparation and coordinated the relief effort. He periodically received police reports about the hardest hit locations, and then dispatched his food van drivers to the areas in desperate need of a hot meal.

“I just get the food out and it’s been a lot of food,” he said, adding that he also spent a couple of days managing the Red Cross relief kitchen at Resorts World Casino in the Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park. “It was very systematic, but we had to improvise and many of my orders were given on the fly.”

And on the fly is precisely how Scarlett earned his leadership skills. He signed up with the U.S. Air Force in 1965, and after requesting a spot in the medical corps a superior sent him to a military version of cooking school.

It was a fortuitous move that changed his life’s trajectory. When he finished first in his class in cooking school, the Air Force paid his tuition at the School of Culinary Arts in Richmond, Va., followed by dietary school in Montana. On the same day he received his transfer orders from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, he was shipped to Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., with an assignment to serve as a personal assistant to a high-level official.

Little did he know that high level official was President Lyndon Johnson and he would be cooking on Air Force One.

“Johnson loved his steak,” said Scarlett, who went on to be the in-flight chef for then-President Richard Nixon, whom he said was a pasta lover.

But the thrill of being the culinary master thousands of feet in the sky for the most powerful man in the world wore thin on Scarlett.

“I was offered decent money to stay on and cook for Nixon long term, but it was a boring job,” he said. “It had some perks, but it wasn’t enough.”

It was his old boss, Lyndon Johnson, who suggested he enter the Red Cross. Scarlett has since parlayed his culinary skills into a catering business in Tennessee, which he runs with his wife, Sarah, when he is not on a Red Cross mission.

As he makes his way home to his wife, Scarlett’s next mission is to go back to work at his catering company and soon, hopefully, take a proper trip to New York to see the non-hurricane-related sights.

“This was my first time in New York,” he said. “The people here are some of the most gracious people I have ever met. Next time, I’d like to see them at the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower.”

But perhaps a more relaxed vacation is in order since Scarlett had a minor heart attack at that Illinois hospital. Doctors sent him home Saturday with orders to take a break.

Unfortunately, December is a busy month in the catering business.

“The wife’s been harping on me to relax, but we’ve got a lot of catering to do,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get away for a little bit next month.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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