As the first guests arrived at Marion Square Park last Thursday, volunteers opened a blue cooler and unleashed a puff of steam into the biting cold air.
Inside it were 40 pounds of baked potatoes, each wrapped in foil and seasoned with olive oil, salt and butter. Hands, some inside winter gloves, gave out two per person – one to eat and one for warmth – just as Lisa Letney would have done.
A nearby table was filled by photos of Letney, candles, and a sweatshirt with “Potato Lady” printed on the front. A small speaker played Norah Jones, Letney’s favorite musician whose songs were on constant repeat during her hospital stays.
Letney, known to the Salem homeless community and advocates as “The Potato Lady,” died three days earlier, on Nov. 7, of a sudden illness, family say. She left a legacy of empathy, selflessness and a drive to call out injustice that her loved ones plan to carry on.
“She’d get along with anybody,” her daughter, 23-year-old Mariah Butts, said to Salem Reporter during an interview the previous day. “I mean, unless they were assholes, and then she’d tell them they were assholes. But I feel like that helped her get along with even more people.”
Her partner of five years, Shane Ayers, laughed and chimed in.
“Her favorite thing was, ‘I called them out.’ That was her favorite line I think I heard the most,” he said.
Every person who knew Letney has a story about her compassion for people who are homeless in Salem. Her dining room table was often covered in supplies for donation, and she would sometimes pay for hotel stays or set up GoFundMe donation pages for people in need.
Her work was year-round, but even when she had ice water in hand she was known as The Potato Lady. It’s why the small gathering at Marion Square Park is just the first of several planned memorial potato handouts in Letney’s honor.
Cortney Clendening, who arranged Thursday’s hand out, met Letney while doing advocacy work.
“She was dedicated to fighting for the people who are oppressed, who are ignored, who are pushed aside and aren’t seen,” she said.
Clendening was there when, during the summer 2021 heat dome, Letney brought a man into the shade and removed his shoes and socks to put cool rags on his feet. Clendening herself hadn’t been able to convince him to get to a cooling shelter, she said, but he trusted Letney and she was able to get him there for some respite. He died a few days later.
“I know how brightly her light shined, and how much she just loved everybody,” Clendening said. “And that’s why I’m out here today, is to keep her light going.”
In addition to potatoes, volunteers offered hot water, tea, warm food and clothing. Letney herself was known for bringing those in need things others might not think of, including flowers on Valentine’s Day.
Michael Warren, a homeless man who attended the vigil, said he didn’t know Letney well, but that she made a lasting impact. Warren, who uses a wheelchair, said he was in his tent for a few days straight in March of 2021 before he was offered an unexpected meal.
“I think I met her maybe one time, but it’s a memory because – not very many people handing out a potato,” he said. “She was a blessing. Not many people would do that for people. More people look at you and see what you got that’s wrong with you.”
Letney began investing a significant amount of time in homeless advocacy after a severe winter storm in late 2020 flooded Wallace Marine Park and Cascades Gateway Park. As the rain pelted her roof that night, she lay awake thinking about the people without shelter.
When thinking of ways to help, she remembered a story from her grandmother about keeping hot potatoes in your pocket while walking to school.
Organizing over Facebook, Letney gathered volunteers for potato handouts. She started a Facebook page called Little Dirty Hippy Lounge, where she would organize trips to local parks to give away the meals and needed supplies.
Soon after, she reached out to Kindness Closet of Salem, a local non-profit that helps unsheltered people, to collaborate.
Letney had a special interest in helping women who were unhoused, and put together safety kits including whistles and alarms, which co-founder Lindsay Bigelow called brilliant.
They were one of several groups that helped Letney distribute 3,000 tampons after a successful donation drive last February.
Bigelow said a memorable moment was working with Letney to organize a vigil for a woman, Tammy Federici, who died in a tent under the Market Street overpass. She said Letney’s efforts showed the woman’s family that Federici was loved.
“She really made an impact everywhere she went, and with everyone she interacted with. She was a very special lady,” she said.
Bigelow said one of Letney’s biggest contributions was her knowledge from her full time job in the asset management program at the Oregon Department of Transportation. There, she oversaw finances and resources for state roads, traffic control structures and bridges.
Vanessa Nordyke, city councilor for Ward 7, met Letney during advocacy work. Nordyke teared up while describing Letney as tenacious, and someone who helped others without judgment regardless of their situation.
“She was incredibly fierce. She brought a lot of positivity and innovative thinking. It’s like, if you want to just go out there and do something, don’t wait. Just get out there and start helping people,” she said. “Imagine if we had Lisas like that in every city. It would be a gamechanger.”
Beyond being an advocate, Letney was a mom to four and a beloved aunt. She inspired one of her nieces, Aaliyah Tucker, to pursue social work in college.
Before getting sick, she dazzled a niece’s birthday party by dressing up as Elsa, dancing and belting “Let it Go.”
That was in July, only a few months before a sudden illness took Letney’s life.
Her sister, Michelle Bryant, described the situation as “a living nightmare.”
Letney developed a rash and difficulty breathing following a Covid diagnosis. After several attempts beginning in August to get treatment as her condition worsened, she was diagnosed with Pneumocystis pneumonia, a rare infection, as well as a rare autoimmune disease at the end of October, the family says.
“It was sad because she was really healthy and then she had to plan her own passing within weeks,” Bryant said, beginning to cry. “She hoped that she would wake up. And we all did too.”
She was eventually put in a medically induced coma at Oregon Health and Science University.
The moment she died, surrounded by her family, the song “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLauchlan began to play over the speaker on her bedside.
Her daughter, Mariah Butts, recalled laughing, in awe of the timing. She said that song, and anything by Norah Jones, will always make her think of her mother.
Bryant said she believes it was a message from her sister, who taught her to get off the sidelines.
“One day, Lisa says ‘I’m going to do this potato thing,’ and she just got right on that (Facebook) group and she started telling everybody what she wanted to do,” she said. “She’s a doer. And I’m going to make sure I do.”
The family is arranging a memorial service for friends and loved ones of Letney, set for Dec. 2 at 5:30 p.m. at the Mission Mill Spinning Room. Guests are asked to wear a colorful feather boa.
Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.
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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.