The 27th annual dinner Thornton organized became a textbook example of one of the biggest private undertakings in Monett. With temperatures in the 50s and the event relocated this year to the Family Life Center at the First United Methodist Church, the dinner handled a record crowd with a record number of volunteers helping.
By the end of the day, Thornton figured more than 1,200 people had enjoyed the meal. Because of the nice weather and easily accessible facility, the vast majority came in person to the dinner. Volunteers carried around 275 meals to shut-ins, including about 50 to the Barry County Jail in Cassville.
Throughout the year, Thornton invites everyone he sees to the dinner. He had participants from as far as Marionville, and Miller and southern Barry County in attendance. A couple from Greenfield who recently moved to the area from Iowa whom Thornton had met and invited only last week, and a couple visiting friends from Commerce, Okla., took honors for traveling the greatest distance.
Guests had lined up the length of the Family Life Center by the time the event began at 11 a.m. The hall seats 250, compared to 150 seats at the American Legion Home where the dinner has been, offering easy accommodations for moving people through the serving line.
According to Greg Davis, who runs the kitchen for Thornton's dinner, the church's much bigger kitchen offered another plus. Davis was able to place more help at different work stations. Most strategically, the crews packing meals for delivery were able to assemble carry-out boxes in the kitchen without interrupting the serving line.
"It was everything I hoped it would be and more," Davis said. "And we never ran out of hot water to do dishes."
Thornton was also tickled that not once did his operation blow an electrical breaker. Only twice did crews have to make supply runs to Ramey Supermarket, as Thornton's calculations ran close to form.
Among the volunteers were all the on-duty members of the Monett Fire Department, to whom Thornton would normally have delivered meals. The firemen carried their pagers and made several runs into the community on calls.
"We just wanted to come and help," said Captain Danny Fowler.
Delivery crews took meals out to the industries working on Christmas, to guards at the firms not open, service stations, police department, the employees at Ramey and convenience stores. Deliveries also went to the local group homes, motels and desk clerks on duty.
Casey's donated pizzas this year, which went quickly. Walmart donated 28 cases of bread and food, including two 15-foot Christmas trees. Tyson Foods and Schreiber Foods donated significant food supplies. Thornton tallied 20 different kinds of food for the main course, including pheasant, wild hog, beef, ham, pork, turkey and barbecued chicken. Supplies were even greater. Eddie Schiska deep fried around 100 pounds of fish, double his usual quota. Even the dessert table was covered with variety.
Thornton spent much of Saturday at the church completing preparations and decorating and was back at 6 a.m.
As volunteers arrived and picked up the duties, around 50 more helpers than usual, Thornton stepped back and let them work. He parked himself in a stuffed red chair by one of the Christmas trees and handed out gifts to the more than 200 children who came with their families.
Thornton's wife, Anna, who joined one of the delivery teams last year, worked her way around the hall with a walker. Her back problems of late have limited her to answering phones, but the day before she cooked 12 meat loaves, all of which were quickly eaten.
Charlene Dart, one of the co-chairmen of the Community Kitchen and the associate pastor at the First United Methodist Church, was in the middle of the action, helping to pack dinners for delivery.
"It's the family atmosphere, the smiles and the laughter and the visiting," Dart said, that made the activity fun for her.
As the dinner wound down, Thornton donated his remaining table service, carry-out boxes, canned goods and cooked leftovers to the Community Kitchen. The Christmas trees went to homes. Church members, who had set up the tables, jumped in to clean up the hall, leaving Thornton unusually rested at the end of the day, leaning against his pickup instead of a mop.
Thornton's distribution of toys to needy families extended to 377 families this year, which he thought was another record. He has one more trip to make as Santa, participating in a New Year's Eve party for around 100 people in the Pioneer community, a season-ending activity he has done for 25 years.
Early on Monday morning Thornton began preparing for next year's event. He picked up 35 angels at half-price for centerpieces for next year's dinner.
Thornton savored the comments of those who attended, the compliments about the food, the help he received, even seeing his boss, Scott Beckwith from Architectural Systems, out delivering dinners.
"I couldn't ask for a better group to work with," Thornton said. "It was beautiful."