Sandy Ackley pulled up to the delivery door at SouthPark Mall on Thursday for the 51st Annual Mr. Thanksgiving Dinner.
Volunteers from Hy-Vee took her order and rushed inside to grab it.
“I’m getting dinner for eight people who can’t get here,” Ackley said. “They’re shut-ins.
“I work at Help at Home and we meet a lot of people who don’t drive anymore,” she said. “We take them different places, but on Thanksgiving they’d just be shut in.”
Ackley said she has tried in the past to cook for people, “but not eight.”
“I used to send my husband home and tell him to bring somebody home,” she said with a chuckle. “Thank God for Bob Vogelbaugh,” she added.
Ask Vogelbaugh, known locally as Mr. Thanksgiving, what his thoughts are on the annual Thanksgiving dinner that has lasted for 51 years and his answer is one of disbelief.
“If you would have told me 51 years ago that I’d still be doing this, I would have said you’re full of it,” Vogelbaugh said.
He still wonders what really got him started on it. One day he is running his grocery store and the next thing he knows he’s serving Thanksgiving dinner to thousands.
A Deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Vogelbaugh said he just looked at the sky one day and spoke to God, “'I guess you wanted me to be your turkey to feed your flock.’ The reward is that on Thanksgiving Day, people are so appreciative.”
For the second year in a row, it was a drive-up operation with Hy-Vee and their volunteers hustling to get the food cooked, packed and delivered to the vehicles as they pull up.
“It’s not the same,” Vogelbaugh laments. But maybe next year, for year 52, people can break bread together, side-by-side indoors.
Standing in the middle of the SouthPark Mall parking lot greeting the people parking and waiting to get in line, a lady was talking to Vogelbaugh.
If he needed any other reason for the dinner, she gave it to him. She is a widow and her children can’t make it this year. She was alone and just wanted to get out and be around people. “You know you are loved,” he told the woman as the line moved forward. She knew, Vogelbaugh meant every word.
Penny Machu, also a widow, said her children couldn’t come up. It was her first time to attend the event.
“The kids usually come up for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but my son is out of town,” Machu said. “They live in Missouri and he called and said, ‘I don’t think I can drive up.’ I’m not going to bake a whole turkey for myself.”
Tim Cernin of Hy-Vee said this is the company’s 17th year helping Vogelbaugh with Thanksgiving.
“Bob might say it’s his 51st year, but he’ll always go back to it’s his 49th year because we can’t all join together and sit down for the meal,” Cernin said.
Cernin’s family were among the 30 volunteers helping pack and deliver about 3,200 meals. Like everyone else, Cernin said he hopes that by next year, everyone is able to sit down together and enjoy the meal and the day.
“That’s what Thanksgiving is about,” he said. “It’s about gathering and just the camaraderie, and talking to your neighbors and things like that. It’s nice that the cars are going by and you’re taking care to see that people are getting a nice warm meal, but it’s just not the same.”
Annette Banks was picking up for both friends and family. She loved the event when it was indoors, but said she is thankful the event is still going on in some fashion.
“We all need this,” Banks said. “Times are hard and Mr. Thanksgiving and the volunteers are doing a great job.”
Looking back over the years during Wednesday’s interview, Vogelbaugh said he has at times taken a couple of steps back and talked to the Lord.
“I just say, ‘I don’t know why you picked me to be your turkey and feed your flock on Thanksgiving Day, but I hope I’m doing it well,’” he said.
“I think I am,” he said. “I must be, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it for 51 years.”