Dean Despain's job title evokes reminiscent smiles from those who spent their childhoods in homes heated by coal furnaces and grimaces from those who had to stoke those furnaces.

Despain is a coal and ash man. Few titles so aptly describe a job. Every day Despain stokes the coal furnaces of three elderly women in Richfield.Each morning he bounds down the flight of invariably rickety and steep steps into the basement, pulls a shovel and bucket from a corner and begins shoveling ash and clinkers out of a furnace as elderly as its owner. After he has scraped all of the ash from the furnace belly, he puts enough coal in the hopper to heat the house for another 24 hours.

From the first crisp day of fall to the last cool day of spring, Despain stokes three furnaces a day seven days a week. He doesn't get holidays off, and there's no one to fill in for him if he gets sick.

He refers to the elderly women he helps as "the girls." To him, they still are. Despain, himself, is 73 years old.

He applied for the job three months ago after his wife decided to pursue a nursing degree. "The wife, she goes over at the trade tech," he explained. "The days get awfully long."

Despain is the key to independence for the three women he assists. If Despain didn't keep their furnaces going, the frail women would have to sell their homes and move in with relatives or find a retirement home.

Despain works for the Sevier Valley Hospital's Home Care Program. The program, funded by state and federal dollars, also sends homemakers to the housebound elderly to help with bathing, cleaning and shopping.

Rose Winkel, 83, was terrified after she injured her back in a fall last summer. "All these years I've thought I would be able to take care of myself," she said. "But one fall and that did it. I was down in bed all summer. I worried, `What am I going to do? What am I going to do?"'

Then she heard about the coal and ash man and the homemaker.

Winkel has spent nearly a year in constant, intense pain because main nerves in the spine are pinched by her injury.

"I can't lift anything. I don't have any children. I have to depend on someone else now. I'm so thankful, I'm telling you. I couldn't be in my home without this service."

Despain is paid minimum wage for two hours of work a day. "It buys gas and a little coffee money," he said.

But his days often run much longer than that. If it snows, there are sidewalks to shovel. And he often finds chores the women can't do for themselves.

"He actually built me a coal bin," Winkel said. "He brought his own lumber over and did it. I didn't know there were people like that left in the world."

Then there's the requisite chitchat. "There's always a little gab session. In fact, it's hard to get out without visiting a little bit," he said. "I think they are glad to see most anybody. They get lonesome."

Intermountain Health Care has had a homecare program for seven years, said Valieda Chartier, the homemaking coordinator for Sevier Valley Hospital. Her hospital sends 21 homemakers and coal and ash workers to 75 clients in Piute, Sevier and Wayne counties, she said.

Those who can afford it pay up to $20 a month for the service. There's a long list of ill and elderly who will have to wait six months before their name moves to the top of the list and they can get help they need, Chartier said.