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Vogelbaugh values his volunteers

Todd Mizener/ staff

Bob Vogelbaugh of Moline has been hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for the community for 27 years. His dinners, now at SouthPark Mall, Moline, draw thousands of people and volunteers. He said he started the dinner because he didn't want anyone to have to be alone on Thanksgiving.

MOLINE -- Seeing his apartment the day after New Year's, one would think Mr. Thanksgiving was Mr. Christmas.

The walls and windows were plastered with decorations and five trees were set up in two rooms. A miniature village, with more than 20 pieces, was neatly placed under the largest tree, set up like an actual town, with a business and a residential section.

Bob Vogelbaugh, 56, is a fan of all holidays. Life is simply too short too grow up, he said.

However, Mr. Vogelbaugh is known most for his huge contribution to the Quad-Cities on Thanksgiving, when he and scores of volunteers serve 2,000 or more people a free dinner at SouthPark Mall in Moline.

He is so well known for this deed that many people do not know his real name, but just call him ``Mr. Thanksgiving.'' For that reason, he puts ``Mr. Thanksgiving'' on his checks under his real name.

``I should almost change my name to Bob Thanksgiving, but I wouldn't want to offend my parents,'' he said.

Mr. Vogelbaugh started his venture in 1970 when he owned Bob's Market in Moline. He asked some of his older customers what they would be doing for the holiday and was surprised to hear many would be alone. He found that unacceptable.

Twenty-seven meals and many thousand people later, what does he think?

``I never really thought it would get this big, or that it would get that type of outpouring of support,'' he said. ``It amazes me every year.''

The job is not an easy one. In fact, Mr. Thanksgiving almost lost his feathers after the 24th meal, announcing he would discontinue running the show after No. 25.

``I kind of ate my words about the 25th,'' he said. ``My key volunteers kept me doing it.''

Mr. Vogelbaugh said about two weeks prior to the event, things get stressful. He runs around making final plans and talks with people about volunteering. He'd prefer people just show up because it is too hard for him to keep track of everyone, he said.

After Mr. Vogelbaugh announced he was leaving after the 25th year, an incident on Thanksgiving of the 24th year, kept him grounded.

After learning Mr. Vogelbaugh was leaving, a woman called and said she was interested in taking over the event. She confessed she had never been to the meal at the mall and had minimal catering experience, once for 125 people.

He invited her to come down. On Thanksgiving morning, as volunteers set up tables and supplies, Mr. Vogelbaugh made an emergency run to Hy-Vee.

When he returned, the tables were stripped and the volunteers in an uproar. The ``lady in red'' had been giving counter orders amd the morning severely disrupted.

``She had destroyed in two hours what it had taken me 24 years to set up and build,'' he said, adding that he realized there was no one to take over his annual event.

``I keep saying I am getting older, but as long as I have my health and the support of the community, financially and with labor, I will go on,'' he said. ``If I ever do step down, I will not turn it over to anyone. They are on their own. Something isn't always going to work for someone else the way it works for you.''

Things sure do work for Mr. Vogelbaugh. Although things sometimes get stressful, he has an incredible crew of volunteers.

``The people of the Quad-Cities are so friendly and giving and caring,'' he said. ``I see that every Thanksgiving. They always come through, whenever there is a tragedy, even somewhere else in the country, people from the Quad-Cities pour out support. I think they have hearts of gold.''

They never let him down.

The volunteers and meal-goers have struck up friendships as well, he said. They come back each year to see each other. Some people come despite family or money, just because they like the warmth the volunteers offer, he said.

``That day, I walk around like a pompous turkey,'' Mr. Vogelbaugh said of Thanksgiving. After the pre-planning and a few emergency food runs, he wants to let the volunteers do the work. That is why they are volunteering, he said.

Whole families volunteer and walk away feeling they finally have experienced the true meaning of Thanksgiving, Mr. Vogelbaugh said.

Mr. Vogelbaugh's worries what will happen now that SouthPark and NorthPark malls have been sold.

The new owners ``won't know Mr. Thanksgiving from Mr. Jack-in-the-box,'' he said. ``I'll deal with it later when they take over the mall in June or July. Hopefully, the current management will stay ... I can't think of anywhere to move to, it's too big.''

After contemplating why he goes through the effort of this massive event each year, Mr. Vogelbaugh said. ``When Thanksgiving does happen, then I realize what a need and what a wonderful feeling I'm getting that day.''

Does he expect anything in return?

``When you do something for someone, and don't expect in return, that is a true friend,'' Mr. Vogelbaugh said. ``I don't want anything materialistic from people. I just want friendship or gratitude. I don't think that is wrong. I don't think that is asking too much.''

The Quad-Cities doesn't think so either, Mr. Thanksgiving.

-- By Kristen Foht (January 22, 1998)

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