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For 28th year, man hosts Thanksgiving dinner for strangers

Nov. 28, 2013 at 8:18 AM ET

Image: Scott Macaulay buying groceries for Thanksgiving
Melrose Free Press / Wicked Local Melrose
Every year for almost three decades, Scott Macaulay of Melrose, Mass., has hosted an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner for strangers.

Scott Macaulay isn’t into self-promotion. He’s never sought out media coverage. In fact, he likes it that most of the people he feeds each Thanksgiving don’t know his name.

On Thursday, for the 28th time, the Massachusetts man is preparing a full turkey dinner for a whole bunch of people he’s never met. His 70 or so guests — elderly people, cancer patients, AA members, low-income people, at-risk teens, recently divorced people, widowed people and others — have one detail in common: Without Macaulay, they’d be alone on Thanksgiving.

“Eh, what I do isn’t a big deal, really,” the self-effacing 52-year-old told TODAY.com. “I put some birds in the oven, boil some mashed potatoes.

“I mean, c’mon. I’m a dumb dodo bird who fixes vacuum cleaners for a living. I’ve got nothing to offer except time, and some birds I can get for 69 cents a pound. I just don’t want people to be stuck at home feeling rotten.”

'A celebration around a table'
Macaulay’s unconventional Thanksgiving tradition began in 1985, right around the time his parents decided to get divorced. The holidays got messy that year, and Macaulay, who was 24 at the time, sensed he’d be spending Thanksgiving alone.

It was a terrible feeling.

“The thought of eating a TV dinner by myself, or even cooking a Thanksgiving meal for one person — no thank you,” he recalled. “Thanksgiving isn’t about fireworks or band concerts or hoopla. It’s a celebration around a table with food. It’s not fun to do that by yourself.”

Macaulay placed an ad in his local paper, the Melrose Free Press, with a simple message: If people thought they might be alone on Thanksgiving, they could give Macaulay a call. Come hang out. Come eat.

A few people showed up at Macaulay’s place that first year. It was nice. So he placed another ad the following year, and the year after that.

The event kept growing to accommodate more people: Blind people with guide dogs. Newcomers to the country who didn’t speak much English. Police officers and EMTs who had to work on Thanksgiving. Nursing-home residents eager for a change of scenery.

“Every year there’s somebody who helps me keep doing it,” Macaulay said. “One year a woman came up to me and told me she had cancer and she was supposed to die. She had just finished her chemo and was getting her hair back. She told me, ‘I actually have an appetite and I’m feeling very thankful to be alive, so I wanted to come to your dinner.’”

In 2008, a woman with Parkinson’s disease paid to have an ambulance take her from her nursing home to the dinner. It was the woman’s first outing in seven years. When she had to leave, she cried.

“She came from Watertown (Mass.), which is nowhere near here,” Macaulay said. “She just heard about the dinner and had to come.”

The dinner really started hopping in 2010, after someone at National Public Radio spotted Macaulay’s ad and called him about it. The phone call led to a segment in NPR’s StoryCorps series, resulting in a peak attendance of 89 people at that year's event.

It also prompted local health officials to come calling. They had questions for Macaulay: Did he wear a hairnet? Had he taken an allergy class? Did he have a permit?

“Now I go above and beyond to satisfy the local authorities, who really are as nice as can be,” Macaulay said. “I want to do the right thing. I want them to be completely satisfied that the local dodo bird who fixes vacuum cleaners and feeds the public isn’t killing people.”

'People need more than just food'
In recent years, Macaulay has been hosting his Thanksgiving dinners at local churches with lots of space. He still buys and prepares all the food himself, but these days he serves everything in chafing dishes and meticulously records the temperatures of different foods.

It’s worried him that the change of venue and the new procedures might make the meal seem less homey. To compensate, he decorates the church hall to look like a living room, complete with rugs, lamps, soft chairs, a fake fireplace, a wood stove and candles.

“He makes sure people aren’t sitting at long tables in a big hall,” said the Rev. Damaris Cami-Staples, pastor at First Baptist Church of Melrose, Mass., where Macaulay held the dinner last year. “All the tables have place settings and look beautiful, and the ambiance is so nice.”

What’s more, this isn’t an eat-and-run affair: People can make themselves comfortable, relax and talk for hours. Starting at 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving, guests can start enjoying cheese, crackers, chips, dip and other snacks. The full meal includes turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and vegetables, and the dessert list is extensive.

Macaulay pays for all the food himself and spends about 40 hours putting the whole affair together. On Thanksgiving Day, he runs nonstop from about 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. He said it’s important to him that he not seek out volunteers or monetary donations because “that’s not what this is about.”

“He does things in the background — he doesn’t like the glory,” Cami-Staples said. “He does this because he knows how much it hurts to be alone on Thanksgiving, and he knows that people need more than just the food. They need to be together with others who care about how they’re doing.”

Macaulay said he’d love to see other people hold similar dinners all over the country.

“I think someone in every town should do this,” he said, “so nobody has to be alone.”

This Thanksgiving, Scott Macaulay’s dinner will take place at Green Street Baptist Church, 179 Green St., Melrose, Mass. Doors open at 1 p.m.

Macaulay’s original StoryCorps segment from 2010 is featured in the new book “Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps” by Dave Isay.

Need a Coffey break? Connect with TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

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