By Katie Lannan
BEDFORD -- Jeff Lovelace wanted to donate at least 500 pounds of food to a drive at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, where he volunteers, but didn't know when to stop.
He'd gathered 400 pounds for a previous drive but was worried about coming up just short of his goal this time around. He didn't know what 500 pounds would look like, so he kept going.
When the Feds Feed Families can drive wrapped up at the end of last month, Lovelace had turned in 902 pounds of food and other goods, all items from the "most wanted" wish list given to donors.
"He kept calling and saying, 'I have a lot of food,'" said Christopher Dollard, manager of the Bedford VA's Health Care for Homeless Veterans program. "People say they have a lot of food all the time, but never this much. I had no idea it was going to be this much. I don't think he and I are very good at estimating."
Lovelace, a Vietnam veteran, personally accounted for almost half of the 1,850 pounds collected at the VA and donated to the Bedford Food Pantry and the Veterans Outreach Center in Haverhill.
"In a way, I was hoping to inspire some other people," he said. "They could say, 'If he can do that, I can bring in a can.'"
Lovelace met that goal as well, Dollard said, recounting instances when VA employees heard about Lovelace's collection and immediately went to the medical center's store to pick up a can to give.
Lovelace describes himself as "very old." He's about 67, he said, but "I don't even keep up with it. I just know I'm old."
He has been interested in giving back since childhood, but business classes he took in college helped the retired engineer form a strategy.
So where did he get 902 pounds of food?
"Oh, at the store!" Lovelace said with a laugh.
More specifically, he collected food, cleaning products and other staples given away or discounted in promotions. He'd learned in school that was how stores lure in customers, but figured a free can of fruit salad or box of laundry detergent could also serve another purpose.
"Often, I may want what I was going to buy, but I didn't want the free product," he said. "Then I realized, whatever you have, there was someone who could use that."
It's how Lovelace contributes not just to this food drive, but to other charitable events throughout the year. He's collected books and shower shoes for VA patients, also exceeding what he was asked for.
For a recent school-supply collection, he capitalized on a sale at Staples, where composition notebooks cost 1 cent.
Promotions like that usually go ignored by people who don't have children shopping for school, Lovelace said. But he noted that almost anyone could scrounge up a couple pennies as they passed through the store, easily meeting the needs of students who couldn't afford their supplies.
Dollard describes Lovelace's approach as "planned generosity."
"A lot of people are generous, but it's rare to think it through like that," Dollard said, sitting with Lovelace in the medical center's canteen one recent afternoon.
Lovelace deflected the praise.
"It's not complicated," he said. "It's easy to do."
A bit harder was actually getting the donations to the hospital in Bedford from Lovelace's home in Lowell. He doesn't own a car, so he carried the 902 pounds of food in batches, little by little, on his daily public-transit trips.
"He hand-carried that stuff over time," hospital spokeswoman Kristin Pressly said. "He's very generous. It was a really a labor of love."
Dollard drove to Lowell and helped him transport the last couple hundred pounds.
One of the top 10 donors this year in the national Feds Feed Families campaign, which encourages government workers to give, Lovelace earned a spot in the drive's Hall of Fame.
And he's looking ahead to next year, when he hopes to collect a full 1,000 pounds of food. He told that to Dollard last week, a light-hearted warning that there'll be 100 extra pounds to carry.
"You need more exercise," Lovelace teased Dollard. "We'll get you more exercise next time."
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