Annual dinner draws hundreds

Marley Holte walked away from his annual Thanksgiving dinner
Thursday somewhat disappointed, yet sated with a sense of community
pride.
From a standpoint of guest attendance, the event at Sacred Heart
Church fell short of organizers’ expectations. Holte estimated an
attendance of 420, including take-out meals. Last year’s event drew
450.
Still, a cheerful crop of volunteers stuffed the O’Reilly Youth
Center kitchen and gymnasium Wednesday night through Thursday
afternoon, maintaining Holte’s long-held beliefs about local
residents.
Marley Holte walked away from his annual Thanksgiving dinner Thursday somewhat disappointed, yet sated with a sense of community pride.

From a standpoint of guest attendance, the event at Sacred Heart Church fell short of organizers’ expectations. Holte estimated an attendance of 420, including take-out meals. Last year’s event drew 450.

Still, a cheerful crop of volunteers stuffed the O’Reilly Youth Center kitchen and gymnasium Wednesday night through Thursday afternoon, maintaining Holte’s long-held beliefs about local residents.

“The response is tremendous,” he said. “Everyone comes and leaves with a smile.”

Regardless of the attendance, about 75 volunteers sacrificed their rightful Thanksgiving sluggishness to prepare and serve an all-you-can-eat feast to mostly underprivileged residents of San Benito County.

Holte emphasized that anybody in the county is welcome to the dinners.

For many of the volunteers, the Holte Thanksgiving and Christmas events have become as much a holiday tradition as watching football and opening presents in most homes.

A core of regulars returns annually to offer their labor, catch up with old friends and, undoubtedly, meet new ones.

County Supervisor Ron Rodrigues arrived at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. He took a short break at 10 a.m. to chat with friends Kirk Tognazzini and Rudi Stampfli – two others with a knack for showing up on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We have certain privileges other people don’t,” Rodrigues said, perched against a counter and wrapped with a stained apron. “I’ll be coming here as long as I’m alive.”

So, very likely, will a host of others. Richard Guzman is the only volunteer from the first Holte feast 18 years ago never to miss a single Thanksgiving or Christmas event.

Guzman said he has always cherished the camaraderie of each experience.

“It’s the only time you get to see these people,” he said. “The rest of the time everyone’s so busy.”

Unfortunately, Guzman’s record streak of 34 Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners will be broken Dec. 25. His daughter is engaged to be married and the in-laws-to-be will meet for the first time in Colorado at Christmas time.

“I asked my daughter, ‘Can’t you set it up for another day?'” Guzman said. “She said no.”

Guzman will be forced to share his record with Herman Wrede, who has missed only one dinner since the first one in 1985.

Wrede, true to form, showered his comrades with an array of clever anecdotes and limericks Thursday.

“Nobody ever believes me here anyway because I’m always lying,” Wrede told turkey server Carole Willette in an attempt to excuse his behavior.

While Holte’s dinners certainly don’t bring to mind classic American Thanksgiving, family bonding wasn’t absent by any means Thursday. Not only do streams of families pour in as guests, but an increasing number of families have chosen to volunteer at the dinners.

As the company of workers gathered at 11:30 a.m. to hear Larry Martin’s directions for serving, one father stood intently, three children at his side, his arms draped over his son’s shoulders.

The number of young people volunteering has dramatically increased over the years, Holte said. Among the participants were the San Benito Youth Council, the San Benito High School Key Club and the Future Farmers of America.

“The future of this whole thing depends on the young people,” Holte said. ” They give me hope that it will continue.”

The youthful philanthropists were the primary servers when guests arrived. For the two holiday dinners, many people without everyday simplicities are treated like royalty.

The steady service Thursday barely gave guests an opportunity to chew two bites before the next bowl of food arrived.

“Excuse me,” the servers said over and over. “Would you like some more turkey?”

“Would you like some more stuffing?”

“Would you like some more juice… bread… pie?”

Most people accepted with a smile and thanks.

Holte said the overall event ran smoothly. And he’s already planning strategies to increase promotion before next month’s feast.

“I look forward to a much bigger crowd at Christmas,” Holte said.

The troops will be ready.

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