George Lilley chats with customer Sarah Finch at his popcorn machine at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine. Photograph: Star-Telegram, Ian McVea
After emergency surgery for a burst appendix, George Lilley woke up in a hospital on a Christmas Day feeling depressed and a little frightened.
Suddenly, Santa Claus appeared in the doorway with a Christmas card.
The jolly old elf was in reality a hospital volunteer.
“This guy was fantastic,” said Lilley, 77. “Of all the places he could be… That stayed with me.”
The Chicago businessman retired from his telecommunications job later on, and he and his wife Florence moved to Grapevine to be near his daughter, Pamela Cole, her husband Daniel and their then 6-month son Christopher.
With time on his hands and memories of St. Nick dancing in his head, Lilley made a visit to Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine and talked to Grapevine Volunteer Services.
In 1997, he signed up for Saturdays where he provides a helping hand when needed — making sure patients and family members are comfortable. He even pitches in with the less glamorous jobs, such as disinfecting mattresses and helping transport patients.
“I let the nurses follow their profession,” Lilley said.
Since Day One, he was greatly appreciated for his contribution to the emergency services department.
Then, another volunteer opportunity came along. The hospital obtained a popcorn machine and came up with the idea to sell popcorn at $1 a box and use the profits for a scholarship program for high school seniors entering a medical field.
To make the popcorn program worthwhile, they needed a volunteer.
“I said I could do that,” the septuagenarian said.
Thursdays was great because his wife played “ladies golf” on that day.
Today, the “popcorn man,” as he is affectionately known, can be found from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays on the ground level of Tower 4.
Popcorn sales provide funding for two $3,000 scholarships annually. The scholarship program was established more than 20 years ago, according to Baylor Grapevine spokeswoman Susan Hall.
“It has been augmented by various fundraisers throughout the years,” Hall said. “The popcorn stand is one of the most popular fundraisers.”
When Lilley’s wife died in October 2012, he had more time on his hands. So he asked for a third assignment.
In addition to his Thursdays at the popcorn site and Saturdays where he donates about eight hours in the emergency room/department, Lilley added a Monday stint at guest services where he “helps our patients and families find their way around the hospital,” Hall said.
“In July, George celebrated his 16th anniversary of being a volunteer at Baylor Grapevine and is approaching having donated 11,000 hours of his time as a volunteer,” Hall said.
Lilley said of his three posts, his “popcorn man” persona is the highest profile. People offer friendly greetings using his popcorn moniker.
He said his patrons are about half hospital employees and half visitors.
“Sometimes the nurses who don’t have time for lunch grab a box as they go by,” Lilley said.
He enjoys his celebrity status, but said it is much more meaningful because the money is for scholarships.
“I’m very proud of that,” he said. “Popcorn and scholarships. It is a win-win situation.”
Patrons give him feedback that his popcorn is top-notch. But he wouldn’t know for sure.
“People tell me it’s good,” he said. “I’ve never tasted it. I don’t think it would look very professional for me to make it, handle it and sell it.”
He saves his penchant for popcorn for the movies when he buys it “with too much butter.”
The popcorn man has friendly competition with two other volunteers who man the popcorn machine on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Scott Smith and Ed Hammett. All wear the Baylor blue shirts with logos and tan slacks.
“The popcorn isn’t as good as mine,” he said.
Although he volunteers, Lilley — who helps at the hospital about 20 hours weekly — said there is one perk.
“I get a free lunch — usually a bowl of soup,” he said.
With every box he sells, Lilley thinks of that day in Illinois when he met Santa Claus.
“Most people in my observation who are coming to visit are worried or frightened,” he said. “I make jokes to brighten things up. Popcorn’s a cheerful thing.”
A version of this blog post, by Marty Sabota, originally appeared on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram suburban newspapers here.