Mr. Thanksgiving’s Dinner
Former Moline grocery store owner Bob Vogelbaugh does his part to make sure no one in his community spends Thanksgiving alone. Every November, with the help of more than 400 volunteers, Vogelbaugh hosts a free Thanksgiving dinner that overflows the food court at SouthPark Mall, a tradition he started more than 40 years ago in his small grocery store.
“In 1970, I owned a mom and pop grocery store, and a week and a half before Thanksgiving, I began asking my customers what their holiday plans were as I bagged their groceries,” Vogelbaugh says. “Many of my elderly customers said Thanksgiving was just another day to be alone, and I thought, ‘Why should this be?’”
Vogelbaugh looked around his store, taking note of an old table and several folding chairs in his storeroom. The next morning, he began calling his customers to invite them to Thanksgiving dinner.
“They were kind of reluctant to accept my offer,” he recalls, chuckling. “Some of them asked, ‘Does this mean I have to buy all my groceries from your store?’”
Vogelbaugh assured them it was just for fun and fellowship, and anyone was welcome.
“The pilgrims and Indians didn’t know one another at the first Thanksgiving, and I wanted to get a feel for that,” he says. “It was going to be a one-time shot. I never imagined I would still be doing it 43 years later.”
One of his regular customers, 91-year-old Rose, came to Vogelbaugh’s first Thanksgiving dinner.
“After dinner, she grabbed my hand and thanked me for the wonderful meal, and even more for the fellowship and friendship she hadn’t experienced in years,” says Vogelbaugh, choking up. “A few weeks later, right before Christmas, I was reading the paper and I saw Rose’s obituary.”
For seven years, Vogelbaugh continued hosting Thanksgiving dinner at his store. When it outgrew the space, he moved it to the second floor of the YWCA, where volunteers carried people in wheelchairs up the stairs because there was no elevator. Today, it is held at the mall in Moline – a free gift to anyone who wants to come.
“All the food is provided at no cost, and people come from all walks of life. It’s not a charity dinner,” Vogelbaugh says. “There are people in need, yes, but there are also millionaires. We have a DJ and dancing, balloons for the kids and a local Catholic school art class always makes our table centerpieces. It’s a big party.”
More than 2,900 guests attended in 2012. Vogelbaugh gathers donations in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving to pay for 2,200 pounds of turkey (cooked by two local Hy-Vee stores), mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, salads, pies and cookies.
“The local transit authority teams up with us to pick up people who don’t drive free of charge,” Vogelbaugh says.
Volunteers arrive at 3 p.m., and dinner starts around 4. People usually hang around dancing and chatting until 9 p.m.
“Thanksgiving is becoming a forgotten holiday – we go from Halloween directly to Christmas,” Vogelbaugh says. “I don’t want anybody to spend Thanksgiving alone. When you’ve got little kids tugging at your pant legs thanking you and elderly people hugging your neck, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to do this for them.”