80-Year-Old 'Mr. Thanksgiving' Hosts Holiday Feast for Thousands in Decades-Long Tradition

For decades, 80-year-old Bob Vogelbaugh, known locally as "Mr. Thanksgiving" to the community of Moline, Illinois, has hosted a free turkey dinner for thousands of people.

This Thursday marks the 51st year that Vogelbaugh and a team of volunteers will coordinate a feast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, rolls, green bean casseroles and pumpkin pie to feed roughly 3,000 residents who show up each year, according to the Washington Post.

The tradition spans all the way back to 1970, when Vogelbaugh owned a mom-and-pop grocery store in Moline and noticed that one of his customers, 91-year-old Rose Hanson, would be spending Thanksgiving alone. Saddened by the revelation, Vogelbaugh decided to invite Hanson and several others to the back of his store for a small holiday meal.

"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," Vogelbaugh told the Post. Though Vogelbaugh didn't realize it at the time, that very first Thanksgiving became the starting point for a decades-long tradition that Moline residents have come to count on.

Vogelbaugh said he didn't intend the dinner to be an annual tradition, but when he learned Hanson had died just before Christmas the year of that first dinner, he decided to keep the dinners going.

"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."

Vogelbaugh continued to host the dinners for the next eight years at his grocery store, then later moved the tradition to the local YWCA. Over the years, the holiday feasts expanded in size and scope, and Vogelbaugh encouraged anyone in Moline to come join him for the meal, according to the Post.

"This isn't a charity dinner; it's a community dinner," Vogelbaugh stressed. "We've served millionaires, we've served families in need and everyone in between. Anyone — and I do mean anyone — is welcome."

In recent years, the traditional dinner took place at the SouthPark Mall with help from the Hy-Vee grocery chain and hundreds of community volunteers. The people of Moline pitch in to raise enough money to cover the costs, accumulating more than $100,000 in donations over the years.

The feast is typically held inside the mall with rows of tables set up for residents to chat, eat, and listen to music, but like last year, this year's dinner will be served drive-through style due to the pandemic. From 4 to 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, volunteers will help with traffic, prepare individual meals and deliver them to people as they pull up to the curb, according to the Post.

"Hopefully, we'll be back to the festivities next year, but for now, we'll just make it work. I can't imagine not putting on a Thanksgiving dinner, " Vogelbaugh told the Post. "I've always enjoyed bringing smiles and helping others," he added. "It makes me feel good to know that anyone who wants one can get a good Thanksgiving dinner."

Last year, the group roasted over 2,000 pounds of turkey and handed out 3,200 dinners. Vogelbaugh expects this year's numbers to be the same.

"The beautiful thing about Bob's dinner is that it doesn't matter what path of life you're on," said retired schoolteacher Vicki Birdsell-Baker, who has been volunteering to help with Vogelbaugh's dinners since 1972.

"The most important thing about it — and the reason it's held — is that nobody should have to spend Thanksgiving by themselves."

Free Thanksgiving Bob Vogelbaugh
Bob Vogelbaugh has been hosting Thanksgiving dinners for thousands of people in Moline, Illinois for over 50 years. Here, a cooked turkey is seen roasting during the preparation of a traditional American Thanksgiving holiday meal, on November 23, 2019. Smith Collection/Getty Images