A Big Heart in TiogaNov 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By David O'Reilly
Her father’s death broke Rosie’s heart. Wide open. Tom Knapp was seventy-five when he collapsed at his Lawrenceville home in April, 2019. “It was my fiftieth birthday,” Rosie Silvernail recalls. She’s sitting at a table at her homestyle restaurant, Rosie’s, in Tioga. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do for someone in need,” she says, and her eyes glisten.
Nowadays, folks across northern Tioga County say the same of Rosie. “We cannot thank you enough for your support and hard work and caring ways for Jeff and his family,” reads one of the many thank-you notes taped around the front door. “You are truly a blessing,” reads another.
But to fully understand Rosie’s reputation for kindness, check out that coffee canister on the counter.
Donation for Christmas reads the hand-lettered sign wrapped around it. 3rd Annual Thomas Knapp Free Thanksgiving Dinner.
“After my dad died, we wanted to honor his memory,” she explains. And so, after acquiring the restaurant at 6 Wellsboro Street about a year after Tom’s death, (she’d been a waitress and cook for three decades) she came up with an extravagantly generous idea. Come Thanksgiving, her newly opened Rosie’s would serve turkey dinner—loaded with potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and dessert—to everyone who showed up.
Her mom, three sisters, and two brothers were all in. Nieces, nephews, cousins, and in-laws, too.
“We’re a close-knit family,” explains her sister, Virginia Gee, of Lawrenceville. “And Dad’s loss was particularly hard on Rosie.”
All through that November they watched for sale-priced turkeys. They started baking cakes and pies as the big day approached, and in the wee hours of Thanksgiving day they descended on Rosie’s restaurant to start roasting, mashing, seasoning, stirring—and packaging.
Why packaging? “Because we were still shut down on account of covid,” Virginia explains. “We figured we’d be handing out dinners at the door for people to take home.
Only they started coming inside, wanting to sit down. So, we said ‘OK. Have a seat. We don’t care if we get arrested.’”
“I think a lot [who came inside] were looking for company,” recalls Rosie. They included people from area homeless shelters, “but also people without family nearby, many of them elderly. They didn’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving alone.” Soon every table was filled, and strangers, masked and unmasked, were making friends. Then came the big surprise. Many grateful diners started making donations.
“We never expected that,” Rosie says, but by the time they locked the door they had about $1,200.
What to do?
Her sister, Brenda Nagy, proposed buying Christmas presents for children whose families couldn’t afford to do that. Rosie agreed, and they turned to the local Salvation Army’s Angel Tree for the wish lists of eight or nine families in the Northern Tioga School District, where the Knapps were schooled and where most of her customers hail from. Armed with each child’s Christmas wish, they scoured stores and websites to buy presents for all.
“We’re bargain shoppers,” says Rosie’s sister, Joanne Knapp-Elvidge, down from Elmira this afternoon. Brenda, of Middlebury Center, who’s been in the kitchen making tomorrow’s macaroni and cheese, chimes in.
“All the money goes right to kids,” she says. And “every dime” dropped into that donation canister will subsidize this year’s Thanksgiving feast, says Rosie, with all proceeds then going for Christmas gifts and children’s needs.
“We do all this because, back in the day, we were the poor kids,” Rosie explains. Their father had health issues, and the family got by on his disability payments. “I was one of those little girls who didn’t have a lot, but every Christmas American Legion Post 235 would get us brand-new gifts. It kind of sticks with you.”
Last year’s free Thanksgiving dinner drew three hundred guests and raised $2,500. The sisters bought Christmas gifts for children in fifteen anonymous families, and the surplus still provides shoes and coats for needy youngsters.
Just then, a voice pipes up from an adjacent table.
“Did Rosie tell you that during covid she was feeding children through the window?” asks Helen Brensinger, a registered nurse from Mansfield. Rosie’s embarrassed, but explains that in the early months of the pandemic she gave away hot dogs, fries, and mac and cheese to Tioga’s middle school kids.
“You deserve recognition,” says Helen. “They were lined up at the door. You’re a sweetheart—and a good cook.”
The kindnesses keep on coming. Breakfasts are free for dads on Father’s Day, for moms on Mother’s Day, and coffee is on the house every Tuesday.
“It’s my way of giving back to my customers,” Rosie says. Stop by, and you’ll find Elmer Huel and his retired buddies lingering at a table. Their waitress cleared the breakfast dishes a while ago, but there’s no rush. It’s like family here.
“My wife passed away a year and three months ago,” recalls Elmer, ninety-one, “and Rosie would not let me pay for a meal for weeks after. Every time I went to pay my bill, the waitress would say ‘Rosie’s got this.’ Every time.”
Brian Fish lauds Rosie’s hiring of local homeless and people with autism and developmental delays as dishwashers—one of whom has drawn an “I ♥ Rosie’s” that’s posted over the door. Gene Farman, white-bearded and stout, shows photos of himself playing Santa for the children’s Christmas party she hosted here last year. And Don Treat marvels at how “just last week the Masons were cooking a chicken dinner for a fundraiser, and she showed up with all this food she made. Wouldn’t take any money for it. She said ‘This is my donation.’”
Minutes later, a middle-aged woman steps inside and asks for Rosie. The two chat, Rosie nods, and the woman grasps Rosie’s hands in gratitude.
“My mother had a bleeding stroke,” Susan Plaza of Elkland explains, and Rosie just agreed to help raise funds for her travel expenses to Geisinger Medical Center.
“She’s got a big heart,” says Susan. “A very big one.”