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For this 98-year-old baker, sharing dessert makes life sweet

May 22, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Leo Kellner is a piemaker with a purpose. Seeking something to do with his days, the 98-year-old began baking after the death of his wife. He now donates his baked goods to friends and others in need, and is training a young friend to take over for him. Special correspondent Dennis Kellogg of public television station NET reports from Hastings, Nebraska.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to something sweet. More often than not, a dessert is better when you share it. That’s the thinking of one man who uses baking to reach out to his community.

From PBS station NET in Nebraska, Dennis Kellogg explains.

DENNIS KELLOGG: If you’re looking for a good dessert in Hastings, you can find plenty of places to get a sweet treat. But some of the city’s tastiest pies and cakes come from the kitchen of this small home, where Leo Kellner has lived for more than six decades.

WOMAN: Thank you, Leo.

MAN: Thank you, Leo.

WOMAN: Red velvet is my favorite.

DENNIS KELLOGG: The doorbell seems to be always ringing here, as friends stop by to pick up one of Leo’s culinary creations.

WOMAN: Thank you so much for making this cake.

WOMAN: Thank you again.

DENNIS KELLOGG: Leo spends his days in the kitchen, gladly baking hundreds of pies and cakes every year.

LEO KELLNER, Baker: My crust is flaky, and tastes like — more or less like a cookie.

DENNIS KELLOGG: And Leo Kellner is 98-years-old.

LEO KELLNER: I have got to have something to do. I would be dead if I wouldn’t be doing this. I lay at night in bed and think how I can change things, make things better.

I have changed my pie three times, the apple pie.

DENNIS KELLOGG: Leo grew up during tough times in the 1930s, watching his mom and sister bake with whatever ingredients they happened to have. He spent a lifetime working with irrigation and grain-drying businesses. He didn’t retire until he was 92.

That’s when Madelon, his wife of 72 years, got sick and passed away.

LEO KELLNER: I started about four months or so after my wife died. I was sitting here not knowing what to do with myself. I was used to working. And I had given up what I was doing, was kind of sitting here in the house and I said to myself, I can bake.

DENNIS KELLOGG: He made 144 apple pies that first year, and hasn’t stopped since. You might think it provides a great retirement income for Leo, but the thing is, he doesn’t charge a cent. He gives every one of his pies and cakes away for free to friends, those who are sick, or to hospice volunteers, to those attending a funeral, to an elderly woman or a man who just can’t afford a good meal.

LEO KELLNER: You don’t know what that means to a person, unless you have been poor, like I was years ago. I would have been so tickled. And my folks couldn’t even give me a pie or a cake or something. So I lived that life.

And that’s why I am happy when I can help somebody put a smile on their face.

MADDY MUSICH, 12 Years Old: Hey, Leo.

DENNIS KELLOGG: Leo is even building a pie-making legacy. He’s mentoring 12-year-old Maddy Musich, teaching her how to bake, because, as Leo puts it, girls today need to know more than just how to run a computer.

MADDY MUSICH: He’s like my other grandpa, kind of. When I get older, I want to bake for my kids and teach them how to do it. And even if they don’t like it, who doesn’t love food anyway?

LEO KELLNER: I consider her just more than a friend, like part of me. When I go, I want her to take over where I left off. And I think she will.

DENNIS KELLOGG: He can share his recipes with Maddy, but she will soon learn Leo adds something to his pies and cakes that you can’t buy in a grocery store.

LEO KELLNER: I make it with love. I don’t just make it just to be making it. I make it with love. That’s my secret ingredient.

DENNIS KELLOGG: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Dennis Kellogg in Hastings, Nebraska.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if I could get to Nebraska right now, I would be knocking on Leo’s door.