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Veterans, volunteers revive community Thanksgiving

Raffy Johnson chats with his son, Alex (center), and Tanner, who ran the dishwasher during the Thanksgiving dinner at Zion Lutheran Church. The two cousins “were soaked” after hours of washing dishes, Johnson said. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal1 / 3
A large crowd of volunteers are ready for guests to arrive at Thursday’s free Thanksgiving meal. Close to 85 people volunteered at the Cloquet event. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal2 / 3
Volunteers perform last minute tasks like cutting the turkey and heating mashed potatoes for Thursday’s communal free Thanksgiving meal, which was organized by the local DAV chapter and held at Zion Lutheran Church. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal3 / 3

There's nothing like putting on a Thanksgiving meal for 500 people, but if your last name is Johnson in Cloquet, odds are good things will turn out well.

And they did. Raffy Johnson said just under 500 meals were served in Cloquet, including 120 meals delivered to people who couldn't make it to Zion Lutheran Church for the sit-down meal Thursday. Johnson — whose dad Dave is a longtime organizer of many a communal Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner in Cloquet — said things went "amazingly smooth," especially considering it was the first time the Chapter 18 Carlton County Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Auxiliary organized the event.

The DAV decided to host the event after Cloquet didn't celebrate a community Thanksgiving meal in 2016, following a decision by the College of St. Scholastica to consolidate its longtime turkey day operations at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

They cooked plenty of food in Cloquet: 300 pounds of turkey plus mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce and dinner rolls. And thanks to the help of more than 80 volunteers, all the meals were delivered in an hour, and no one had to wait long to get served at the church.

It was a busy day, but filled with good food and special people. Johnson marveled over the many hard-working volunteers.

"DAV Commander Rod Eslinger was in attendance," he said. "Gary Dahl and his wife, Diane, ran the (cooking) operations at the VFW. The mayor, Dave Hallback, and his son volunteered. And I met this Vietnam veteran named Don, the first volunteer to show up, who did an amazing job in the kitchen. He was recently awarded the Silver Star, 50 years after Vietnam. He was the first Silver Star (recipient) I've ever met. And the church was just fantastic about hosting it."

Many people made it a family affair, like the family that was traveling from the Iron Range to the Twin Cities and stopped in to volunteer. So did Johnson, whose wife, Toni, and son, Alex, 11, pitched in. And of course, his father, Dave Johnson, was also an integral part of the day.

"He was the first one at the church," said Raffy with a laugh. "He beat me here by half an hour."

When asked if the DAV will offer the community meal and deliveries again next year, he answered in the affirmative.

"That's the plan," he said. "I think everyone had a great time doing it. Even after, I've had people ask every day since then how they can help next year."