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Mr. Thanksgiving

One man’s mission to serve Thanksgiving to a few local folks turns into a feast for more than 2,000.

Bob Vogelbaugh offers free Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving eve, Bob Vogelbaugh, owner of a small grocery store in Moline, Illinois, was bagging Rose Hanson’s purchases. “Hey, there’s no turkey here,” Bob said. “My family’s all grown,” Rose said. “Why bother with dinner? It’s just me now.”

That got Bob wondering. Were there other folks in the same boat as Rose? He asked other customers that day about their holiday plans. “My kids have moved away.” “It’s too far to travel just for dinner.” “Why go to all the trouble?”

Closing up, Bob took note of an old table and some folding chairs in his storeroom. I bet that table would seat eight, he thought. He scratched his plans to go to a family reunion (his mom was disappointed, but she understood) and called his customers. First, Rose. “I’m inviting you to Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. “Does this mean I have to buy all my groceries from you?” she teased. Bob laughed. “It’s just dinner! Come by the shop at six and bring your favorite dish. I’ll supply the bird.”

The next night, Rose and a half-dozen others gathered for green beans, mashed potatoes, turkey and pumpkin pie. “It was like the first Thanksgiving: people from different backgrounds getting together to share their blessings,” Bob said. “And a great meal.”

Today, Bob’s annual Thanksgiving potluck has grown into a buffet extravaganza that overflows the food court at a local mall. Dinner is served free of charge to anyone who shows up.

Weeks ahead of time Bob collects donations, rounds up volunteers and books buses (provided free by the transit authority) for the diners unable to drive. On the big day, he wakes up at 5 a.m. and heads to the mall to put up decorations. He checks in with the 400 volunteers preparing the salad, rolls and side dishes, and arranges for the delivery of the 2,000 pounds of turkey he’s ordered. At 2:30 p.m., buses pull up to the mall, carrying hungry folks from four counties in Illinois and even a few from as far as Iowa.

Vicki Baker, Bob’s right hand for the day, directs volunteers, who pass out plates piled with food. “As for dessert,” Bob says, “it’s every man for himself. People show up with a half-dozen pumpkin pies, stacks of angel food cakes. We always have enough for everyone.”

Bob makes his way from table to table, saying hi to newcomers and regulars alike. “I know the ladies who bring the best pies,” he says. “And one family still comes back to do all the dishes!”

The dinner costs about $9,000 in turkey, stuffing and fixin’s. “We have a couple of large donors,” Bob says. The third-grade class at nearby C.R. Hanna Elementary School raised more than $1,800 one year. “Mostly, we get letters with a few crumpled bills in them. The people always say they wish they could give more—those are the ones that really get me!”

After the last turkey is carved, Bob sits down with a slice of pumpkin pie and surveys the contented diners. What is Bob most grateful for, you might ask? “I don’t believe the man upstairs meant for us to be alone at Thanksgiving,” Bob says. “He gave me the chance to help bring all these people together for the day. That’s what I’m most grateful for.”

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