In 1970, grocer Bob Vogelbaugh discovered that an elderly customer would be alone on Thanksgiving. So he invited her and some others who had nowhere to go over for the holiday dinner. He has done it every year since, and today, he provides a Thanksgiving meal — and love — to more than 3,000 people.
Bob Vogelbaugh remembers Rose, the 90-something-year-old woman who came into his little grocery store, Bob’s Market, in Moline, Illinois, back in 1970. It was just days before Thanksgiving, and, as Rose unloaded her cart, Bob noticed that she didn’t have any fixings for a holiday meal. “Where’s your turkey?” he asked. “I’m not cooking turkey for just one person,” she answered, unloading the rest of her things. “How sad,” Bob thought. “This nice lady is going to be alone for Thanksgiving. That shouldn’t happen.”
An idea popped into Bob’s head, and he called his mother. “There’s going to be one less head at the house this year, Mom,” he told her. “I’m doing a Thanksgiving at my store.”
Bob immediately contacted Rose and some other older customers he thought might also be spending the holiday alone and invited them to come to Thanksgiving dinner in the back of his store.
The then-29-year-old single grocer cooked up a feast for his 12 guests, who couldn’t thank him enough. He had to admit, it was one of the best Thanksgivings he’d ever had — and it began an annual tradition.
‘Mr. Thanksgiving’ welcomes all.
For the next few years, Bob hosted Thanksgiving dinner in the back of his store, welcoming anyone in his community who wanted to come. Many were elderly folks who had no family or family living too far away. Others were people who had fallen on hard times.
Each year, the table grew more crowded, but “Mr. Thanksgiving,” as he was soon nicknamed, always made room. He even continued hosting after he sold his store in 1976. With his guest list then numbering into the dozens — some years his parents even attended — he held the dinners at the local YWCA, but, eventually, he moved them to their long-term location at SouthPark Mall.
Today, 52 years after that first dinner, Bob’s Thanksgiving feast, which includes music and a disc jockey, draws up to 3,000 people! During the pandemic, Bob and his tribe of volunteers passed out to-go dinners in a drive-through line. He approached each car to greet its occupants personally with holiday cheer.
“I’m glad you’re here, and I’m hoping you enjoy the meal,” Bob told his diners. “I want to wish you a very happy holiday. Thanks for coming.”
How ‘Mr. Thanksgiving’ gets it done.
While the event started out as a one-man show, these days, Bob has lots of eager helpers. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, donations pour in for groceries at Hy-Vee supermarkets; those who donate get a paper with an illustration of a turkey surrounding Bob’s face. People who want to support the dinner also mail checks and notes of encouragement, and Hy-Vee workers do all the cooking.
Connie McElyea, 60, works for the mall that hosts Mr. Thanksgiving’s Dinner and has helped organize the event for years. “There is a such a variety of people who come to celebrate,” she smiles. “I think it’s very impressive that people don’t look at it as a low-income dinner. They feel welcome enough to come and attend, no matter who they are or what their demographics are.” Vicki Birdsell-Baker, a retired teacher and social worker, has been friends with Bob for many years and organizes the Thanksgiving volunteers. “The dinner brings people together in a very positive way,” she says. “It’s all about letting people know that they’re loved and that they’re not forgotten.”
And as long as Bob is around, that tradition of love and welcoming will carry on. At 81, Bob — who also works as a school crossing guard and is an ordained church deacon — says putting on this dinner remains his heartfelt passion.
“To be alone on Thanksgiving is a hard thing,” he says. “I never was growing up, and I just thought these people are going to be alone, and I don’t want that. I said years ago, ‘One of these days, I’m going to be stepping down.’ But now, I tell people, ‘I’m not stepping down until I’m in the ground!’”
Bonus: 3 Charitable Thanksgiving Tips
If you want to channel Bob’s generous spirit and help your community this Thanksgiving, here are some simple yet meaningful ways to get involved.
1. Shop the ‘as is’ aisle.
Planning to make a dish to donate? Stop by the “as is” section at the store first. You may find day-old bread for 50 cents (instead of $3 for a fresh loaf) and less-than-perfect veggies for $2 (versus $4 for the unblemished ones). You can make double the amount of food for a fraction of the price.
2. Score a free turkey.
Some grocery stores allow you to exchange membership card points for a free protein. At ShopRite, with your Price Plus Club card, when you acquire 250 to 400 points over time, you can use them to get a turkey or ham at no cost. Give the free bird away to a family in need or donate it to your local shelter.
3. Bake in bulk.
Focus on a few specialty dishes instead of investing in a whole spread to feed even more folks. Whip those up in bulk, whether a dessert recipe or a side that you can freeze and donate to someone to reheat. You can even pull your recipes from 5DollarDinners.com to find dishes that are cheap to make.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.