Free Turkeys

“Happy Thanksgiving, Daddy,” said little Robert, pouncing on his father’s bed at four in the morning.

“Yep,” replied his tired father, who was nearly comatose from sleep.

The year was 1939. Robert’s father staggered out of bed and stretched his lanky body. It was still dark outside. The Michigan air was liquid ice. Robert’s family got dressed while the coffee perked on the potbelly stove.

“Are you excited to eat turkey, Daddy?” Robert asked.


Robert’s father was an ironworker, and a man of sparse words. He was the sort of man who returned home each evening varnished in sweat and exhaustion. Robert’s mother was a commercial seamstress in a factory. Somehow the couple found time to raise four kids.

There was a Depression on. They lived in a meager house. They weren’t poor by any means—there were plenty of families worse off. But they weren’t high-steppers, either.

That morning, Robert’s father donned his nicest Sunday clothes—slacks pressed sharp enough to slice Pittsburgh steel. Robert’s mother wore a dress she reserved for weddings and funerals. Then, the whole family piled into the Ford.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Robert’s mother said to the family.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” everyone answered.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Daddy,” said Robert’s kid sister.

“Yep,” was the reply.

The Ford pulled into the local high school. The parking lot was overrun with vehicles that morning; like ants on a Baby Ruth. People were everywhere.

Inside the cafeteria were dozens of volunteers in white aprons. There were clergymen pushing carts loaded with steaming vats of food. There were old women manning stoves. A large banner read: FREE TURKEYS.

A cafeteria line formed, snaking out the doors into the frigid parking lot. There must have been a few hundred people waiting in line. Maybe more.

In line ahead of Robert’s family were the McDavids. Robert went to school with the McDavid kids. Sometimes the McDavid kids didn’t have shoes or winter jackets.

When it was the McDavids’ turn in line, the sad-looking family placed their order at the counter for one turkey. The cooked holiday meal came in a paper grocery bag stained with grease splotches.

Robert’s mother whispered to his father. “I heard Mister McDavid lost his job.”

His father said nothing.

“Heard his wife was taking in wash from rich folks in town.”

No reply.

“Heard they lost their house.”

“Next!” barked the cafeteria lady, an older woman wearing a hairnet and wire glasses.

Robert’s father approached the counter and said, “Ten turkeys, please.”

The woman in the hairnet gave him an incredulous look.


He nodded.

“What’re you, some kinda wisenheimer or something?”

“Ten turkeys,” repeated Robert’s father. “Please.”

The woman finally gave in. She shouted to the kitchen. “I need ten birds!” She turned to Robert’s father. “Cranberry sauce with those?”


In a few minutes, Robert’s father was navigating the Ford through quiet streets. Ten warm bags sat in the backseat. They drove into the hinterlands, past the grain silos, the clapboard churches, the stubbled cornfields, the abandoned service station, the feed and seed.

Finally, they arrived in a rundown place filled with weary houses and dilapidated cars.

This rural neighborhood was not really a neighborhood at all. This place was more akin to a municipal dump than a residential zone. Old shacks with chipped siding stood lined up like a tired platoon. Mildew was the preferred color here.

There were kids outside, bundled up, warming hands over fires contained in fifty-gallon drums. There were middle-aged men wearing thick parkas, working under the hoods of iced-over Chevys and Buicks.

Robert’s father tugged the parking brake.

“Stay here,” he told the family. “This won’t take long.”

Through the windshield, Robert could see his father carrying two heavy grocery sacks toward one home. His father approached an old man who stood on a lopsided porch.

Robert’s father gave the bag to the old man, then shook his hand vigorously. And the old fella began to weep. Then they embraced. Then Robert’s father wept.

Robert could read the elderly man’s lips.

“God bless you, sir,” the man was saying.

It was a marathon day. Robert’s family delivered several more grocery bags to several more homes. After which the family returned to the high school to pick up even more bags so they could do it all over again.

Robert’s father made drop-off after drop-off until nighttime overtook northern Michigan like a down quilt. And when the day was over, the family finally ate their own holiday feast at a small truckstop diner outside of town.

The kids stabbed lukewarm turkey and ate box-dressing. Robert’s dad took sips of high-octane coffee and massaged the stiffness from his neck.

Robert looked at his father and realized that this man still had to get up for work the next morning. In a scant few hours his old man would crawl on icy iron cross beams, put in his eight hours, and earn his wage. Even after spending his off-day playing Samaritan, work was work.

It was at this moment that Robert not only understood what an exceptional human being his father was, but decided that someday he wanted to be the same kind of charitable man.

When Robert’s father noticed his son gazing at him from across the table, he smiled and tousled Robert’s hair.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Robert,” his father said.

Robert smiled back. “Yep.”


  1. Steve McCaleb - November 9, 2021 10:16 am

    Thank God for good men (and women). A man who sets that example for his family and the world is one of those Angels you so often talk about. God help us, I don’t think a good man is as easy to find as he once was. Maybe it’s just me being old, world weary, and cynical. I hope so, Lord help us. The day we run out of men like Robert’s father is the day we run out of hope….and time.

  2. Ann - November 9, 2021 10:24 am

    The true meaning….whew,🥲and the need is still there,right?yep!

  3. Te - November 9, 2021 10:53 am

    The essence of America is in this story. I hope we get back to this real soon.

  4. Joan Moore - November 9, 2021 11:47 am

    Thank you, Sean. That’s going to stay with me a long time, and press me into service.

  5. Karen Erwin-Brown - November 9, 2021 11:58 am

    great story

  6. Dianne DeVore - November 9, 2021 12:03 pm

    You have made my day, Sean. Thank you!

  7. Sarah - November 9, 2021 12:22 pm


  8. Liza - November 9, 2021 12:44 pm

    Oh, my goodness! What a wonderful story!🥰

  9. Farris Jones - November 9, 2021 12:51 pm

    Thankful for you Sean, putting pen to paper and reminding us of what is really important!!!

  10. Paul McCutchen - November 9, 2021 1:08 pm

    And that, my friend, is the true meaning of Thanksgiving.

  11. Dean - November 9, 2021 1:14 pm

    Need more Robert’s and a lot less people who are only concerned about themselves. Great column as always.

  12. Lisa K Riley - November 9, 2021 1:15 pm

    May we only be…and no matter how little we have, we share. Thank you, Sean!

  13. Pondcrane - November 9, 2021 1:17 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving:)
    I Love You, Sean

  14. Suellen - November 9, 2021 1:23 pm

    We do that in our own small way here through our church. Every year we give away Thanksgiving baskets. I even ran that operation a few years. The best year was when one of my contacts that owned a trucking company donated a truckload of produce. What a sight that was as we are usually relying on donated canned and boxed goods. When putting together baskets I was reminded by one of the Pastor’s that some of the recipients don’t have working stoves or electricity. You don’t often think of that in this day and age. We take so much for granted.

  15. Cathy - November 9, 2021 1:35 pm

    WOW. Spread the love❤️👍

  16. Jan - November 9, 2021 1:36 pm

    Such a special story about really special people. Love This! Thanks for sharing!

  17. Sonya Tuttle - November 9, 2021 1:38 pm

    He knew those folks didn’t have transportation to go get those free meals. May we all remember those forgotten people!! God bless those who think outside the box.

  18. Rhonda - November 9, 2021 1:43 pm

    Happy Thanksgiving
    Happy life

  19. Mark 3:26 - November 9, 2021 1:59 pm

    When I read Sean of the South, I often feel proud of my people and I miss my father but isn’t that often the point? Thanks Sean…

  20. Sandy Burnett - November 9, 2021 2:41 pm

    Never stop noticing the important quiet moments of life and never stop writing about them.
    Happy thanksgiving. I’m giving thanks for you and people like those in your stories, for all the exceptional unsung people we long to know and long to be with.
    May all of us be so blessed. Another happy thanksgiving!

  21. Deborah Blount - November 9, 2021 2:43 pm

    God bless you Sean, for sharing that.

  22. Kathi Casteel - November 9, 2021 4:24 pm

    A reminder for us all that this is what it’s all about. Thanks Sean of the South. You’re a good man.

  23. Stacey Wallace - November 9, 2021 4:39 pm

    What a wonderful story! Thanks, Sean!

  24. Christina - November 9, 2021 4:48 pm

    You daily columns remind us of beautiful testimonies of caring for “the least of these” and point us to what really matters in this life. Thanks Sean!

  25. Liz Bishop - November 9, 2021 5:09 pm

    And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about?!
    God bless all the fathers like Robert’s.

  26. Gayle Wilson - November 9, 2021 5:19 pm

    Times never change. Their is still generosity, there is still need.

  27. MAM - November 9, 2021 7:25 pm

    An awesome one today, Sean. So needed in today’s world to know that there were and still are people who think more about others than themselves. Great writing as always, Sean!

  28. Linda Moon - November 9, 2021 9:59 pm

    I like Robert. I like the old fella who wept. Real men weep, and because of this story my eyes teared up, too. It is more blessed to give than to receive, and Robert and his family knew this. I think you do too, Sean Dietrich. No…I KNOW you do.

  29. Karen Snyder - November 10, 2021 1:40 am

    ❤️ Thank you.

  30. Christie McRae - November 10, 2021 1:54 am


  31. Hugh Warren - November 10, 2021 2:30 am

    Robert’s father reminds me of my parents. They fed many people out of the fine gardens they grew.

  32. Chasity Davis Ritter. Freddie’s daughter - November 10, 2021 5:39 am

    My dad always gave turkeys and hams to his workers at thanksgiving. He’s by a whole buggy load of them at the store. My dad ran a salvage yard all of my life that I could remember. My brothers and I all worked for him over the years as well. Now that Dad is gone my brother has taken over the yard. He doesn’t really have any workers for now except him and his wife. His step son and my aunt. We he gets going a bit better I’m sure he will. Maybe he will pick up where dad left off and give out turkeys as well. I miss my Dad. I miss him like crazy. Our last thanksgiving together he had made me a steak. I don’t eat dressing and he took it to mean I didn’t want Turkey. So I ate both that year. I wish with all my heart he was still here so I could just see his face and hug his neck and taste his cooking again. I know he’s happy where he is now but I can’t help but miss him. And of anyone tells me no one can make dressing like your dads all I can say is Yep!!

  33. CELIA . - November 11, 2021 8:29 pm

    Marvelous and so inspiring. Thanks , Sean.

  34. Larry Wall - November 11, 2021 9:05 pm

    Robert’s dad truly had a great understanding of what Thanksgiving is about and demonstrated that meaning to his children and the recipients of his inner goodness. Beautiful point made with this story, Sean. Well done.

  35. Kate - November 12, 2021 1:48 pm

    This is why I do not read you everyday, Sean, the tears. But thank you for always reminding us of the good throughout this wonderful country. “Plain” folk doing so much good for others. I read something the other day about Nick Saban written by a sports writer, ii is called the Capability Gap. What one is capable of doing and what one actually does each day is called the capability gap. When one begins to close that gap, then the person begins to excel. Not exactly what Saban said, but close. This man certainly excelled in love, goodness, kindness and compassion. And what an example for his family. Perhaps we could all work on that.

    • Tim - November 13, 2021 6:59 pm

      Kate I’m knocking out 5 or 6 this beautiful Saturday and I’ve been a crying mess after 3 or 4 of them. This one included. The family winning the ‘church raffle’ got me good too.
      Sean’s the best thing on the world wide web in quite some time!!!

  36. rwiegers1155 - November 27, 2021 9:49 am

    Love it. Don’t believe it, but I love it.


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