For the 51st consecutive year, Topekans from all walks of life and every corner of town will break bread together Thursday over a free Thanksgiving dinner prepared by volunteers at the Kansas Expocentre's Ag Hall, near S.W. 17th and Tyler.
Final preparations were in the works Tuesday for the Community Thanksgiving Dinner, as volunteers busied themselves in Ag Hall's kitchen.
The meal will be served from noon to 2 p.m. Thursday at Ag Hall. A year ago, organizers said, 775 people dined at Ag Hall, while volunteers delivered another 1,775 meals to homes across Topeka. The total number of meals served in 2017 was 2,550.
This year, a record number of approximately 2,500 meals are scheduled to be delivered to Topeka-area homes. Deliveries are set to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday and should be completed by 12:30 p.m., said David Braun, who takes over this year as president of the Community Thanksgiving Dinner Foundation. Another 800 people are expected to dine at Ag Hall, for a projected total of about 3,300 meals, up about 750 from a year ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, Braun said donations of chicken broth, canned jellied cranberries and cash donations were still needed for this year's dinner. Later, on Tuesday night, he said there was a "dire need" for canned sweet potatoes. Donations can be dropped off from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Ag Hall.
"We're good on volunteers," Braun said. "That's one of the things that fills up right away, and we're always blessed with that."
Braun, 25, said he volunteered with his family in about six previous dinners, starting when he was in high school. He said he missed a few years while he was away at college. Then, when he returned to Topeka, he started volunteering again.
As a volunteer, he said he "fell in love" with the dinner and the way it brings the Topeka community together.
The foundation's previous president, Myron Johnson, and vice president, Dwight Menke, stepped down from their leadership roles after last year's 50th anniversary edition of the dinner.
Braun, who works as a foreman for Braun Construction, said he volunteered for the leadership role of the Community Thanksgiving Dinner Foundation after hearing the organization was looking for someone to serve as president.
"I heard about the need for new leadership, so I hopped on board," Braun said "I just want to keep the dinner alive. I think it's important for the community."
Braun said Johnson and Menke have supported him in his first year as president of the foundation. Johnson was at Ag Hall early Tuesday afternoon to lend his help.
Braun said the Community Thanksgiving Dinner Foundation had only raised about $7,500 as of noon Tuesday, about $4,500 shy of its $12,000 goal. Individuals or businesses wishing to make donations may do so at any CoreFirst Bank location or at Ag Hall through the Thanksgiving dinner.
For longtime Topekans, whether they enjoy a meal or make donations to it, Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without the free community dinner, whose theme is "No One Need Dine Alone." It is believed to be one of the longest-running and largest community Thanksgiving dinners of its kind in the nation.
A pair of women, Pauline Johnson and the late Addie Spicher, started a dinner on Thanksgiving Day in 1968 at the former East Topeka United Methodist Church, which was located at S.E. 7th and Lime. After Spicher died in the early 1970s, Johnson continued her involvement in the dinner, and was at Ag Hall on Monday afternoon to lend a hand. Her son, Myron, served in a leadership position for many years.
Around the same time that Johnson and Spicher started their dinner, the late Grant Cushinberry also began organizing a free community Thanksgiving dinner in Topeka.
After a few years, the two dinners merged.
In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, as the dinner expanded from serving several dozen people to several thousand people, Cushinberry spearheaded efforts to obtain donations and locations for the dinner, which previously was held at the old Municipal Auditorium, the National Guard Armory and, finally, Ag Hall.
In more recent years, the event has been organized through the Community Thanksgiving Dinner Foundation, which runs it to this day.
Hundreds of people and businesses have contributed to the continuation of the annual dinner over the past five decades, ranging from those who have donated food or cash to those who rolled up their sleeves to volunteer to those who dropped off a few cans of green beans or cranberry sauce at Ag Hall the week of the event.
But if not for its early leaders and visionaries, the dinner that has become a Thanksgiving staple in the Topeka community likely would never have gotten off the ground.//