LOOKING BACK : The People...

John Van Hengel held a single, brilliant ideal: Why not collect grocery store castoffs and harvest food industry leftovers to feed the hungry?

That was 25 years ago in Phoenix.

Since then, Van Hengel's vision and his St. Mary's Food Bank have inspired 5,000 similar banks in 200 American cities and a dozen nations from Canada to Sri Lanka.

But his billion-dollar assault on the hunger of millions has not changed modest, unceremonious Van Hengel. He still wears donated clothes and lives in a $375-a-month apartment on an annual income of $12,000, mostly Social Security.

His proudest title: The Mother Teresa of Celery.

After The Times reported the food bank story (View, Jan. 12), life became a little more formal for Van Hengel.

He was named one of six winners of the America's Award. In Washington, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Van Hengel received a check for $5,000 and the congratulations of guests including Joe DiMaggio, William Westmoreland and Marlee Matlin.

Last month, Van Hengel was again in Washington, this time in the Senate Caucus Room. He received a national Caring Award, another $5,000 check and handshakes from actor Merlin Olsen and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio).

There is, of course, a television movie being written about the life and times of Van Hengel.

Not that much of this matters to a man whose weekly groceries still come from his own food bank.

Danny impresses him more.

Van Hengel and Danny, 6--and Danny's mom--share a pew each morning at a Phoenix church. They have been good companions for four years without once intruding on the privacy of the other. But last month, Danny asked what Van Hengel did for a living.

Danny's mom answered. She showed her son a newspaper clipping with a photograph of Van Hengel receiving his Caring Award for feeding the poor.

"Danny reached up, shook my hand and said: 'John, you did good,' " Van Hengel says. "That meant more to me than any award. Earning the respect of a child is the ultimate compliment."

For the record, the $10,000 in awards money has been poured back into International Food Banking Services, Van Hengel's new counseling organization.

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