Juneau's mayor often carves the first turkey at the community Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the Salvation Army. But when Dennis Egan was mayor, he had problems cutting the ceremonial slice.
So after Egan butchered the bird the previous year, volunteer carver Jerry Harmon helped out by making a surgical precut.
"All I had to do was slip the knife in," said Egan, laughing.
The mayor's job is one of the most visible at the annual event at Hangar on the Wharf, but dozens of others work behind the scenes rounding up the food, cooking, serving and cleaning for the free meal, offered from about 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the restaurant in Merchants Wharf downtown.
Community volunteers, social-service groups and businesses also contribute to at least two other free Thanksgiving events. Jovany's Restaurant offers a meal from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and the Glory Hole serves up dinner at 6 p.m.
Hangar on the Wharf co-owner Murray Damitio said the big community Thanksgiving meal moved into his restaurant in 1997 after he had a conversation with Maj. Neil Timpson, who headed up the Salvation Army at the time.
"We were having lunch and he said it would be kind of fun to do something different," Damitio said. "Since then it's taken on a life of its own."
That life includes regular donations of turkeys from businessman William "Shorty" Tonsgard, volunteer coordination by Jane MacKinnon and turkey cooking by Hangar staff and Alaska Seafood Co.
Restaurant staff cook about 10 turkeys, plus trimmings. The 25 turkeys Alaska Seafood prepares go into the smoker tonight, said owner Dick Hand.
"It's all computerized," Hand said. "We hang them and load them up. ... When we come in at 8:30 in the morning Thursday, it's just shutting down."
Restaurant staff and volunteers, including members of the Salvation Army's advisory board and women's auxiliary, gather at the Hangar on Thursday morning to prepare for the feast.
Advisory board Chairman Rod Morrison, general manager of the Valley Bullwinkle's, said he will carve and bone the turkeys this year.
"We're talking close to three dozen turkeys, so it takes me a while," he said. "Then there's people who peel the potatoes, make the mashed potatoes, steam the vegetables, cut the pies and serve."
Damitio said he enjoys watching the meal take shape.
"I just go in and chop and dice and slice and peel and grate," he said.
From 300 to 450 people sit down for the meal, while others carry out plates of food for shut-ins.
"It is very fulfilling. It really makes us feel good and we hope we're helping those people who don't have a place to go feel good too," said Morrison. "We don't turn anybody away and if they want to, they can take another dinner home."
While the meal serves those who can't afford their own Thanksgiving dinner, anyone is invited. Some attend to be with others on what otherwise would be a lonely holiday. Others just like to be part of a community event.
Salvation Army Maj. Larry Fankhauser said he was impressed by the mix at his first community Thanksgiving meal.
"We had political people, we had business people, we had people off the street who were just getting by," he said.
No one pays much attention to the reason people attend, said Egan, who has helped out with the meals since the mid-'80s.
"There is no rich vs. poor or middle class. There is none of that. Nobody could care less and it never is an issue," said Egan, who turned over first-slice duties to current Mayor Sally Smith after he left office.
The event attracts so many volunteers Damitio suggests those not already scheduled instead donate money to the Salvation Army.
"It's not just once or twice a year that people need help," he said. "They're always there and the good thing about this community is that people help. It's a pretty giving place."
Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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