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During her sophomore year in college at Chadron State, Regina McDuffee lived with a group of friends in an off-campus residence. One night, a party was held at the house with Regina, her friends and other students. Like most college parties, it was a rowdy and spirited affair, one that caught the attention of local police.

“We woke up the next morning and the police were knocking on our door,” McDuffee said. “We got busted for throwing a party.”

But, that wasn’t the only thing that happened that night. One of the party guests went home and overdosed on heroin. That guest died that evening. Although none of that happened within McDuffee’s home, the guest who had the heroin happened to be the dean’s son.

“Because it was the dean’s son, it made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald the next weekend,” McDuffee said. “That’s how our families found out. So, we all found nanny jobs in New Jersey.”

McDuffee was so scared of what might happen when her parents found out that she went more than 1,700 miles away to New Jersey in order to start a new life with her friends. Life’s ups and downs found her more than a few times in her 30 years out East, and in 2016 she moved back to Nebraska, where she has found a new calling serving breakfast and lunch to hungry people at the luncheonette at Tooley’s Drug and Home Care.

McDuffee finds a home among people and enjoys serving them each day. That knack for serving has allowed her to find success, not just at Tooley’s, but with 1C Church’s annual community Thanksgiving meal, something she has been the chairwoman of the previous two years. It’s been a long and winding journey, but McDuffee is now in a good place as someone willing to serve more than just good food.

TO THE SHORE AND BACK

McDuffee grew up in Albion before moving to Ainsworth in the northern part of Nebraska. After graduating, she headed off to Chadron, where the incident with the party happened and her college tenure essentially ended after two years. She was going to return to school in the fall, presumably after everything died down, but she loved being in New Jersey so much that she decided to stick around.

Out in New Jersey, McDuffee made a living for herself in a variety of service positions. First, she served in a nanny role for 15 months before joining a day care center. While her primary, full-time role at that point was taking care of young children, she took up a part-time job at a liquor store that ended up being the first step in an interesting and colorful career path.

Her job at the liquor store worked out well enough that one day her boss asked her to join the team full-time. She had been working long hours at both the day care center and the liquor store and it was fairly tiring.

“The owner said, ‘Regina, you’re working 70 hours a week. You can come work with us for 40 (hours), we’ll give you overtime and we’ll pay your insurance,’” McDuffee said. “All of a sudden, I was going to be making more money, get my insurance paid and have more time.”

She ended up working for the liquor store the next 11 years and watched as it moved and expanded, eventually taking on a role as a gift basket seller. Work on the gift baskets proved to be a grind and she eventually needed to step away.

“We went from making 100 baskets the first year I did it to making 100 baskets a day,” McDuffee said. “I burned out.”

She left and found work at a cheese importer and a Whole Foods, where she spent 11 years.

While in New Jersey, she had the opportunity to cross the Hudson River and spend plenty of time in New York City.

“I loved Manhattan, I loved going into the city,” McDuffee said. “I would take the train into the city and (see) Yankee games. I was thoroughly convinced that I was going to stay on the East Coast.”

FALLING AND GETTING BACK UP AGAIN

For 30 years, McDuffee had worked in various service jobs. But, by 2016, life had become difficult for her. She had lost her job, was going to lose her place of residence and was, for all intents and purposes, broke. She also had gotten divorced and almost had to deal with the indignity of losing the two things she cherished most in life: Her two dogs, Vivian and Milo.

After almost moving into a homeless shelter, McDuffee was in need of help. She was at the lowest point that she could think of, and staying in New Jersey was not in the cards.

So, with help from her family, she came back home to Nebraska. This time, she settled in the "City of Power and Progress," where she found a small apartment that provided just what she needed.

“I don’t know how they paid for everything, but they paid a couple of months (of) rent (and) put some money down for the electric bill and the gas bill to get me started,” McDuffee said.

Even though she was born and raised in Nebraska, returning to the "Good Life" proved to be a significant culture shock. She had spent so much time in New Jersey, relatively close to NYC, where she could find anything from fresh seafood to specialty cheeses. In Columbus, she couldn’t find that at the local grocery stores. She had to make do with the limited selection.

“It’s culturally so different,” McDuffee said. “Columbus has 22,000 people and the town I lived in (out in) New Jersey had the same amount of people. The difference was, in New Jersey, it was one square mile of 20,000 people.”

Much like when she moved from Nebraska to New Jersey, she needed to find some kind of work in her new home. Her experience in the service industry resulted in a position at Dairy Queen.

Several months later, a job opened up in the luncheonette at Tooley’s in downtown Columbus. This gave her the opportunity to get creative and get back to meeting people and making new, lasting friendships.

GOOD FOR THE SOUL

McDuffee hasn’t made too many significant changes as the head of Tooley’s lunch counter. One can find a variety of food, from breakfast items to sandwiches and even dessert. McDuffee has found that she can be creative in her role, making her own soups and baking her own cookies.

“I plan all of our food here,” McDuffee said. “Here, I can have fun and experiment with our foods and make any kind of soup I want, decide what kind of cookies we’re going to have, and it’s fun. Here, it’s like I’m hosting a dinner party, for lack of a better (word). It’s like I’m hosting a bunch of friends every day for lunch.”

She even knows what her friends want, as well, and is willing to cater to them to make them happy. Some of them want a specific piece of pie or a specific sandwich or salad, and some even want a cookie without the primary—and most important—ingredient.

“(One of my) customers, she likes chocolate chip cookies, but hates chocolate chips,” McDuffee said. “Each batch that I make, the first one is without chocolate chips. Then, I mix in the chocolate chips and make the rest of the batch.”

It all goes back to her love of serving people and knowing what they want and what they like.

“It just warms my heart to serve and to anticipate what people will need,” McDuffee said.

That passion for serving others has come in handy over the past several years. When McDuffee returned to Columbus, she wanted to find God all over again. So, she set out on finding the right church that fit her needs.

A friend pushed her in the direction of 1C Church. That same year, she was asked to assist with a community Thanksgiving meal, which seemed right up her alley. 

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It proved to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of her life. She said that it was one of the best days of her life to watch people enjoy themselves and share some fellowship during that special time.

“It was so amazing and so fulfilling,” McDuffee said. “We got to serve 525 people.”

The event proved to be a rousing success, so much so that it was brought back the next year, this time with McDuffee as the event’s chair. But, when she took over, she realized that no one left any notes from the previous year, despite the event’s success. So, she decided to start from scratch and make the event even more special, even without any funding leftover from the previous year.

“We were able to get everything down to the salt and pepper donated,” McDuffee said. “It was a burden-free meal to the church. It was a burden-free meal to our guests. We served 575 people (that year).”

She once again served as the event’s chair this last year and they have continued to serve more people with the passing of time. With a smoother process and a series of notes from previous years to go on, McDuffee and her staff of volunteers served 675 people. Although McDuffee’s leadership has been important, she understands that without all of the volunteers and local businesses stepping up to help, the Thanksgiving dinner couldn’t be possible.

“The day of, it takes 100 volunteers, if not more,” McDuffee said. “We had eight teams of delivery drivers this year and we’re going to go to 10 next year.”

MOVING FORWARD

McDuffee has found new friends and made long-lasting relationships, not just through her role at Tooley’s, but through her work at 1C Church. Those who have had the chance to meet her over the last few years understand that her giving and serving spirit helps make her the kind of person always willing to help.

“She is a very caring person, very giving (and) very gracious,” said Gayle Farmer, a friend of McDuffee’s who met her in a Bible study group at 1C. “When she gives, she does it with her whole self (and) doesn’t cut any corners.”

For instance, she helped to provide special “comfort bears” to six local organizations. She took so much pride in her work helping those less fortunate that she kept her very first bear in her office at Tooley’s.

“That stays with me forever and lives in the kitchen here with me,” McDuffee said. “Over the last two years, we’ve made 400 of them ..."

McDuffee’s life is relatively quiet outside of her work. Remarkably, she has never watched an episode of "Seinfeld" or "Saturday Night Live," owing to the fact that she is a huge sports fan. When she lived in New Jersey, she went to a fair share of Yankee games and was a season ticket holder for Rutgers women’s basketball. She misses getting the chance to watch those games, but she has a plan for the 2020 baseball season.

“The YES Network (Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network) is carried through Hulu,” McDuffee said. “I am getting an (Amazon) Fire Stick before baseball season starts and going to subscribe to Hulu and I’m going to be able to watch the (New York) Yankees.”

As for her dogs, Vivian and Milo, they have both since passed, creating a large hole in her life. But, she managed to find a new companion through Paws n’ Claws that she can spend time with living a simple and good life.

“A friend told me about a three-legged, 7-pound dog down at Paws n’ Claws,” McDuffee said. “Her name is Trinity. I rescued her and she rescued me.”

Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zachary.roth@lee.net.

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