SPRINGFIELD — The anonymous benefactor with the idea of giving people a place to go for Christmas died recently, but his legacy will continue.
The plan for the annual Christmas Dinner for Those Alone started between two church members who happened to share a plane ride back to Springfield, said Gary Ellison, a member of First & Calvary Presbyterian Church.
Springfield physician F.T. "Hogan" H'Doubler Jr. told Ellison he was concerned about those he knew were alone during the upcoming holidays.
"He said if you don't have family with you, the fact that everything at Christmas is 'family this and family that' can be depressing. Wouldn't it be great if our church could have a big Christmas dinner — no charge?"
H'Doubler told Ellison that if he could convince the preacher to allow the dinner, H'Doubler would put up a sizable donation. He envisioned a nice event with no strings attached, said Ellison.
With the doctor covering the costs of the main course, church members pitched in with side dishes and desserts.
The Christmas Dinner for Those Alone has continued for almost three decades.
After a few years, the church picked up the expenses, though H'Doubler preferred to keep secret his role in starting the event, said Sarah Muegge, Dr. H'Doubler's daughter.
H'Doubler died recently at the age of 85. Ellison said he asked H'Doubler's daughter if it was OK to tell people that it was H'Doubler's idea and money that started the tradition.
She said yes.
The first dinner might have drawn 200 people, Ellison said, but some years it draws close to 700.
So that the church can plan for the right size crowd, people who want to attend are asked to call an answering service and select the time they will attend.
Ellison said church members do their best to make everyone feel welcome. Over the years he's enjoyed seeing strangers socialize: businessmen stuck in town for whatever reason or people alone because they've lost dear family members, or others who just moved to town.
He recalled one year seeing an older woman dressed to the nines, seated next to a younger man of more modest means. The younger man proposed to her.
"She said no, but got a kick out of it," Ellison said. "Then about two weeks later this young man was arrested on bank robbery charges."
This year Ellison is making an effort to also get the word out on college campuses that students, too, are welcome at the dinner.
"Some of them are from so far away, they can't go home, they may even be from other countries," Ellison said.
Muegge said her family always enjoyed contributing side dishes for the event.
H'Doubler always got a chuckle when he read or heard reports of the event's success, she said.
"He was really pleased with the way it blossomed," Ellison said. "It's just the way Dr. Hogan envisioned it: no strings attached. Just fun and fellowship and good food."
During the past 29 years, the church estimates 14,000 people have attended.
Reservations are being accepted for this year.
"All they have to do is pick up the phone and call us. All are welcome," Ellison said.