In what should be the golden twilight of his life, 85-year-old Wendall Gill works full-time at a McDonald's and cares for his special needs grandsons, all by himself, since his beloved wife of nearly seven decades died suddenly.
The loss of Della Gill, the only girl Wendall ever dated, and the guiding star of his long life, has left Wendall bereft. Yet he carries that burden in his usual, quiet way.
But Todd Oldfield, who's known Wendall for decades, knew in his heart that something was off.
So at the Kentucky McDonald's where Oldfield first met Wendall 40 years ago, Oldfield asked what was troubling the usually smiling worker who always greeted customers as he wiped tables or mopped the floor.
One day at the end of summer, Della and Wendall had stopped into his workplace on his day off, to use the facilities and get something to eat. "She went in to use the restroom and she never came out," Oldfield said. "He still has to clean that bathroom 20 times a day."
Della had suffered an aneurysm, and died at a local hospital without regaining consciousness.
Twenty years ago, he and Della adopted two of their grandsons. John Columbia, 33, has autism. Justin, 20, was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Their full-time care is now Wendall's responsibility.
To help the elderly man, Oldfield started a GoFundMe page, where he placed a video of him talking to Wendall, who was overcome with emotion at times. Money began pouring in, and a party organized by Oldfield was held Saturday, just for people to come and tell Wendall they appreciated him.
"It was absolutely perfect," Oldfield said. "Better than perfect!" More than 100 people showed up, some of whom had never met Wendall, just to put their arms around him and tell him that he mattered.
Meanwhile, more than $80,000 has been donated on his fundraising page.
"Everybody in town knows this guy," said Oldfield, who is a financial planner. "He's smiled at gazillions of people for 43 years."
Oldfield first met Wendall when he was 16 and was hired for his first job at the McDonald's where Wendall still works. "And now I'm an old man," Oldfield said, laughing. He's 56.
His dream, he said, was to help Wendall get out of debt and into retirement. The Gills had no money, and when Della died, "they didn't even have a stone for her head," Oldfield said. Wendall had to keep working, even though he was drawing Social Security.
Thus far, Oldfield has paid off Wendall's van, which he uses to transport his grandsons, through donations. A friend of Oldfield's has stepped forward to say he would pay for Della's headstone. Lastly, Oldfield wants to pay off Wendall's house, so he doesn't have to make mortgage payments.
"He should not be worrying right now about where every dollar is going to come from," he wrote on Wendall's fundraising page. "That is my prayer. If you drop by McDonald's and see him there, say hello. Tell him sorry you are for his loss, and how much you love him and how much you pray for his strength, and peace."
Wendall has been overwhelmed by all the recent attention, Oldfield said. It is not his way to be demonstrative. "He's very shy. He's introverted. He's a simple, simple man ... He cannot talk about Della. He gets very, very emotional."
But more than 1,300 people have donated to his page in the past 26 days. "People have really, really responded," said Oldfield. "People just love him."