OAKLAND — Al Penney was among hundreds of people to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner at Messalonskee High School, but he was the only one wearing a cowboy hat.

Penney, 57, of Vassalboro, is a retired laborer who has been doing Elvis impersonations since he was 10 years old.

This was his first time at the community Thanksgiving dinner, which is free and has been held annually since 1990, and he said he came because of an ad he saw saying it was at Messalonskee High School.

Penney’s sister, who graduated from Messalonskee years ago, died in 1998. He said being at the school reminded him of coming there to watch basketball with her when they were growing up.

“Around the holidays, I think about her a lot,” he said. “We were really close. I came here to honor her.”

He said the food was good but more importantly, that he felt welcomed from the minute he walked in the cafeteria, where there was hardly an empty chair and lines of people were served plates of warm turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes and vegetables.

Tables were set with white and yellow tablecloths and streamers of red and orange leaves. Volunteers smiled at the door and walked around asking guests if they needed anything, while others sliced pies and packed them in paper plates for delivery.

“A feeling came over me, like I belong. That doesn’t happen to me often,” said Penney.

Mike Perkins, 51, is one of the event organizers who oversees the setup, preparation and delivery of the dinners. He said volunteers are what really make the dinner and its rewards possible.

“It’s so rewarding,” he said. “Exhausting, but it’s worth it.”

He said there were about 100 to 150 volunteers and about 900 dinners served, including 350 that were delivered.

The volunteers he said came from a variety of organizations, including the Lions Club and Girl Scouts, the high school and independent members of the community.

The food, which is all donated by Bud and Josephine King, the event’s founders, arrived on Monday and the volunteers have spent the last two days arriving at 6 a.m. and cooking all day, Perkins said.

Mojie Hapgood, 74, of Oakland, spent most of her day decorating, setting up tables and chairs and slicing pies before doors opened from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

She has been volunteering as a member of the Oakland Lions club at the dinner for the last seven years, although she missed last year because of her husband’s battle with brain cancer.

“It feels really good to be back,” Hapgood said. “People show up and just do what needs to be done.”

The event started with about 50 people attending and has been growing ever since, with the last couple years averaging about 800 to 1,000.

Bud King, 89, founder of the dinner and a lifelong resident of Oakland, was there with his family. The former owner of Bud’s Store in Oakland, he said he started the dinner for the simple reason that he likes people and likes giving to people.

“Everybody helps. If it wasn’t for the volunteers we wouldn’t be able to do this. They’re what we’re thankful for,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com