It all started simply enough when grocery store owner Bob Vogelbaugh asked an elderly customer what her plans were for Thanksgiving.

It was 1970, and Vogelbaugh’s mom-and-pop store in the former mill town of Moline, Ill., was full of customers filling up their carts with the fixings for turkey dinners with their families.

Then there was 91-year-old Rose Hanson.

“While I was bagging her groceries, I noticed there wasn’t a turkey, and I asked how she’d be spending the holiday,” Vogelbaugh recalled.

He was saddened by her answer: “She told me it was just another day to be alone,” he said.

When Hanson told him that she couldn’t buy many groceries because she had a hot plate for a stove and a windowsill for a refrigerator, Vogelbaugh said, he felt compelled to do something.

The next morning, he phoned her and several other elderly customers and invited them to join him for Thanksgiving dinner in the back room at his grocery store, Bob’s Market. Then he called his parents and told them he wouldn’t be coming to the family dinner that week.

“I set up a table and some folding chairs, put up some decorations and roasted a turkey with all the trimmings, and we had a lovely dinner with nine people,” said Vogelbaugh, now 80.

When he spotted Rose’s obituary in the paper just before Christmas, he knew that his Thanksgiving get-togethers had to continue, he said.

“I’d initially thought this would be a one-time-only thing, but Rose changed that,” said Vogelbaugh. “I didn’t want people to be alone.”

This Thanksgiving will mark the 51st year that he has put on a free turkey dinner for anyone who shows up — no reservations required, no questions asked.

Today, though, there have been a few changes.

Vogelbaugh, who is known as “Mr. Thanksgiving” year-round to locals, is no longer in the grocery business, but he now helps to raise funds for a holiday feast for about 3,000 people every year at the SouthPark Mall in Moline. The city, which has a population of about 42,000, is one of the Quad Cities along the Illinois and Iowa border, and is the headquarters of Deere & Co, manufacturer of farm and construction equipment.

For the past 11 years, the Hy-Vee grocery chain has volunteered to do all of the cooking for Vogelbaugh in two of its Moline stores and help distribute the meals, he said.

Vogelbaugh’s face appears every year on turkey fliers filled out by store customers who choose to donate between $1 and $10 to buy supplies for the dinner.

“He’s the sweetest guy you’d ever meet,” said Debbie Geisler, marketing and communications director for several Hy-Vee stores including the one in Moline. “We’re proud to help him out with the dinner and keep this beloved community tradition going.”

Hy-Vee customers have pitched in $134,000 over the past decade to buy enough turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, rolls and green bean casseroles to feed the multitudes that show up, she said. Vogelbaugh handles the pumpkin pie duties, ordering hundreds from the local Sam’s Club.

“Last year, our employees roasted 2,000 pounds of turkey,” Geisler said. “Every year, the number of people who want to come to the dinner keeps growing.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, about 12 percent of Moline’s population lives in poverty. But Vogelbaugh said nobody needs a reason to show up.

“This isn’t a charity dinner; it’s a community dinner,” he said. “We’ve served millionaires, we’ve served families in need and everyone in between. Anyone — and I do mean anyone — is welcome.”

Due to the pandemic, this will be the second year that free dinners will be available only via drive-through service at the mall. From 4 to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, hundreds of volunteers will help direct traffic, prepare to-go plates and deliver them to people as they pull up to the curb, said Vogelbaugh.

“We’ll ask how many dinners they need, then somebody will run in and get them, and we’ll move on to the next car,” he said. “Last year, we handed out 3,200 dinners, and I expect we’ll do about that many this year.”

In years past, tables were set up in the halls at the mall, and everyone received table service, Vogelbaugh said. There was always music and dancing, and people usually went away knowing some new friends, he said.

“Hopefully, we’ll be back to the festivities next year, but for now, we’ll just make it work,” he added. “I can’t imagine not putting on a Thanksgiving dinner.”

After his first dinner in 1970, Vogelbaugh held eight more get-togethers at the store, then moved the dinner to the local YWCA when he left the grocery business. He ran a restaurant for several years, then took a job working with special-needs students, he said. Single and never married, he has a part-time job as a school crossing guard.

“I’ve always enjoyed bringing smiles and helping others,” said Vogelbaugh, who grew up in Moline. “It makes me feel good to know that anyone who wants one can get a good Thanksgiving dinner.”

When he moved his turkey dinner to the mall about 30 years ago, Vogelbaugh said, everything was initially cooked in roasters that were scattered up and down the halls. So much equipment was brought in that volunteers joked they’d probably find some of the roasters at Easter, he said.

“It was a huge production, and as more people started coming, it just wasn’t feasible anymore to do it that way,” he said.

He credits the success of the annual event to the dedication of the volunteers, including some who have pitched in from the beginning.

Retired schoolteacher Vicki Birdsell-Baker is one of those people. She has shown up to help every year since 1972.

“I met Bob at his grocery store when I came in for his famous tuna salad and was always impressed at the extra effort he took to help others,” said Birdsell-Baker, who now helps to coordinate volunteers.

“The beautiful thing about Bob’s dinner is that it doesn’t matter what path of life you’re on,” she said. “The most important thing about it — and the reason it’s held — is that nobody should have to spend Thanksgiving by themselves.”

Another longtime volunteer, Connie Mc Elyea, said that for her, the best way to spend Thanksgiving Day is with several thousand strangers.

“The enjoyment of making the community happy and knowing that you might be helping somebody going through struggling times is rewarding,” said Mc Elyea, 59.

When the last to-go bag has been handed out this year, Vogelbaugh said, he’ll spend Thanksgiving evening the way he usually does: having a slice of pumpkin pie in the mall office after everything is cleaned up.

“That’s really all I need to eat on Thanksgiving,” he said. “Seeing the thankful looks on people’s faces — that’s more than enough.”

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