When the doors opened at 11 a.m., the building was filled with the smell of cooking. Pans of carved meat and pots of vegetables were set in front of a line of volunteers who began serving up dinner to those who arrived. Another four tables were covered with desserts.
Linn Thornton's Christmas day dinner was underway.
"The Lord answered my prayer," Thornton said. "I asked, 'Lord, give us just enough snow to make it pretty.' The rest went to the north."
The weather played a major factor in how Thornton's annual dinner proceeded. With temperatures around 20 all day, attendance declined a bit. By 12:30 p.m. there was no waiting in line to get food. However, the calls coming in for home deliveries soared to around 400, double the number from past years.
More than 50 people also came forward to help, the largest number to volunteer in the 25 years Thornton has offered his dinner. Two came from as far away as Neosho to carve meat from 6 to 10 a.m. then went home to be with their families. Thornton welcomed them all.
Greg Davis has volunteered for all but two of the last 14 dinners.
"This is Christmas for me," said Davis, who served as chief cook and headed up the kitchen crew.
For some, volunteering became a natural extension of attending Thornton's dinner. Ron and Georgia Roskelley, who have come to eat for two years, were helping to serve drinks this year.
"Our grandchildren are all gone (from home), so we can volunteer," said Georgia. "We're having a ball."
Eddie Schiska was back cooking fish in vats of oil. Schiska started volunteering years ago to help Troy Hilton cook fish, and when Hilton could no longer continue, Schiska carried on.
Weather became a challenge for delivery drivers as well. Scott Beckwith, who delivered meals and brought in additional supplies to keep the kitchen stocked, said roads were not a serious deterrent once the proper mental adjustment had been made.
Delivery teams were welcome for those who could not get out in the ice coated conditions. Perhaps nowhere was the gift more warmly accepted than at the Barry County Jail, where Thornton got permission to share the Christmas meal with prisoners for the first time. Anna Thornton, Linn's wife, reported everyone was waving as she and her daughter carried in 70 meals.
The jail wasn't the only recipient of Thornton's generosity. He had meals delivered to the police department, fire department, ambulance district, Casey's convenience stores, Ramey supermarket and the security guards at the various factories. Meals were also packed and delivered to the group homes for the developmentally disabled.
Thornton said he had people attending the dinner from every town in Barry and Lawrence counties and some from as far away as Springfield and Wichita, Kan. One couple that used to live in the Monett area drove 90 minutes from Berryville, Ark., to reach Monett.
Many attending said they had come before or heard about the dinner from a friend. Many echoed the story of Wanda and Roy Samuels, of Aurora, who have known Thornton for years. The Samuels have often participated in the Toy Run, an event that collects toys for Thornton's Christmas outreach to children.
The number of people coming or calling for dinners was so great that by 1:30 p.m. the meat supply at the serving table was nearly gone.
"We were out of food by 2:15," Thornton said. "We didn't slight anyone. We had 16 different meats. We had 500 cupcakes and 700 rolls from the Southwest Area Career Center culinary arts class and the Monett High School Band Boosters. A lot of people brought in pies and cakes.
"The Lord opened the doors. We went right through," Thornton added.
Thornton immediately began making plans for next year, buying supplies during Saturday's sales. Helping the effort was a check from the Barry County Fire House Gang, which marks the first time that group had donated to the effort.
This year he also got Ice Melt donated from his employer, Architectural Systems Inc. Thornton estimated the dinner costs around $4,000 to mount, and with a portion of that coming out of his pocket ever year, each donation helps.
|Thornton's Christmas efforts continued into the weekend. He delivered toys to children from three more families on Saturday.|
Thornton calculated his efforts, with donations provided by many individuals and area business drives, reached 320 families this year, up from 245 in 2008.
Taking a breather after packing up on Friday, having given away almost all his Christmas decorations, Thornton looked around the now empty and nearly still Legion hall and smiled.
"Everything worked like clockwork," Thornton said. "This was my Christmas."