Moline’s ‘Mr. Thanksgiving’ and family of 2,500 will do it again

By: By Jennifer Willems

MOLINE — That guaranteed seat in front of Macy’s for next year’s Thanksgiving parade through the streets of New York City is just going to have to wait.

Mr. Thanksgiving — also known as Deacon Bob Vogelbaugh of Moline — has decided not to retire the holiday meal he started 40 years ago, as originally planned, but will continue to celebrate with the 2,500 people who become family for that one day each year. Vicki Birdsell-Baker, who has worked with him for 39 of the 40 dinners, made the announcement as the festivities began at SouthPark Mall here on Nov. 25.

“Vicki and I had talked about it prior to the dinner and that afternoon we kind of sat for a little bit,” Deacon Vogelbaugh told The Catholic Post. “She said, ‘You know, what are going to do next year? There will always be Macy’s.’

“We kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’ We didn’t want to give it up, but neither one of us wanted to make the other feel guilty,” he said.

That decision proved to be a popular one with the dinner guests and volunteers who filled the mall’s food court, and they showed it by their sustained applause.

Looking into their faces, he knew he couldn’t do anything else, he explained.

“People would have been alone — they come from all walks of life,” Deacon Vogelbaugh said. “How can that not tear at your heart, if you have a heart at all?”

Never intended to be a charity event, the Thanksgiving dinners started with just eight people gathered in his grocery store, Bob’s Market. Feeling that “it takes more than two to have a Thanksgiving dinner,” he hosted a meal in 1970 and thought that would be the end of it.

“If you had said to me 40 years ago that I would still be here doing this, I would have said no,” Deacon Vogelbaugh said.

Now he and Birdsell-Baker arrange a dinner that includes 2,200 pounds of turkey, roasted by the HyVee on the Avenue of the Cities, and mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing, prepared by the HyVee store on John Deere Road. Rounding out the menu is fruit cocktail, cranberry sauce, green beans, rolls and pumpkin pie.

This year most of the food was served and what was left over was given away, he said.

“We have been so blessed with the number of volunteers we have and the community donations,” said Birdsell-Baker, a fourth grade teacher at Willard Elementary School in Moline.

“There’s no sign-up list. We have never had one,” she said. “You do what needs to be done as the need arises.

“I told one group of people that you might not think it at this point, but you’ll be amazed at how you flow with the dinner,” she said. “You just become part of it.”

Deacon Vogelbaugh estimated that about 400 people volunteer throughout the day, from setting the tables, cutting the pies and preparing the food in the morning to serving meals in the afternoon. Some may only get to take one or two meals to the guests.

“One thing I try to share with the volunteers is they’re not only servers . . . but to join in and talk and mingle with the guests,” Birdsell-Baker said. “It’s something that people enjoy so much.

She added that volunteers also share with each other.

“It becomes one wholesome fellowship — that’s one thing I have found so beautiful over the years,” Birdsell-Baker said.

Among those preparing plates for the dinner guests were Command Sergeant Major David M. Puig from the Rock Island Arsenal and his wife, Nikki, both of them war veterans. Not only has he served in Desert Storm and been to Iraq twice, but he was stationed in Afghanistan before coming to the Arsenal more than year ago.

It was suggested that perhaps they had given enough of themselves, but they demurred.

“We served last year, too. It was a good time. It’s a great opportunity to give back to the Quad Cities,” CSM Puig told The Post. “The people here have been phenomenal to us.”

Kelly Schutt, the food service manager for St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, came to the mall to prepare plates with her husband, Troy, after being at the monastery for four hours that morning.

“This is our third year,” she said. “It’s rewarding. We’re able to be the hands and feet for the Lord.”

They have brought their five children in previous years and Schutt said it was a good way to show them how to give rather than receiving all the time.

Enjoying the dinner was Kathy Taylor of Moline, who comes every year to remember her mother.

“This was her favorite place for us to come together,” Taylor said. “She died in 2007 and we come all the time now. It makes me feel closer to her.

“It’s a wonderful thing that Mr. Vogelbaugh and everyone does,” she added.

Father Robert Rayson, pastor of the Catholic parishes in LaSalle, promised he would come to the 40th dinner and spent the evening entertaining and being entertained by Deacon Vogelbaugh’s mother, Mary. Assigned to Sacred Heart in Moline as a new priest, Father Rayson said he quickly became friends with Deacon Vogelbaugh, who now serves Sacred Heart Parish in Annawan.

“He’s doing great work in the community,” Father Rayson said. “He’s a great example of a servant.”

For his part, Deacon Vogelbaugh said the event fills him with gratitude — for his family, for friends like Birdsell-Baker, and for God, “who has given me the opportunity to do his work on earth.”

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