The 27th annual dinner Thornton organized became a textbook example of one of the biggest private undertakings in Monett. With temperatures in the 50s and the event relocated this year to the Family Life Center at the First United Methodist Church, the dinner handled a record crowd with a record number of volunteers helping.
By the end of the day, Thornton figured more than 1,200 people had enjoyed the meal. Volunteers carried around 275 meals to shut-ins, including about 50 to the Barry County Jail in Cassville.
Thornton's target audience is people no longer able to prepare a big holiday meal or having a family with whom to spend the day. Thornton personally picked up a 94-year-old woman from Marshall Hill who called two weeks ago about getting a ride. She stayed the full four hours of the dinner, declaring as she went home, "I don't know when I've had such a good day."
Throughout the year, Thornton invites everyone he sees to the dinner. A couple from Greenfield who recently moved to the area from Iowa and a couple visiting friends from Commerce, Okla., took honors for traveling the greatest distance.
Guests lined up the length of the Family Life Center by the time the event began at 11 a.m.
According to Greg Davis, who runs the kitchen for Thornton's dinner, the church's much bigger kitchen offered huge benefits.
"It was everything I hoped it would be and more," Davis said. "And we never ran out of hot water to do dishes."
Delivery crews took meals out to the industries working on Christmas, to guards at the firms not open, service stations, police departments, the employees at Ramey and convenience stores. Deliveries also went to the local group homes, motels and desk clerks on duty.
Casey's donated pizzas this year, which went quickly. Walmart donated 28 cases of bread and food, including two 15-foot Christmas trees. Tyson Foods and Schreiber Foods donated significant food supplies. Thornton tallied 20 different kinds of food for the main course, including pheasant, wild hog, beef, ham, pork, turkey and barbecued chicken. Eddie Schiska deep fried around 100 pounds of fish, double his usual quota. Even the dessert table was covered with variety.
Thornton spent much of Saturday at the church, completing preparations and decorating, and was back at 6 a.m.
As volunteers arrived on Christmas morning, Thornton stepped back and let them work. He parked himself in a stuffed red chair by one of the Christmas trees and handed out gifts to the more than 200 children who came with their families.
Thornton's wife, Anna, worked her way around the hall with a walker. Her back problems of late have limited her to answering phones, but the day before she cooked 12 meat loaves, all of which were quickly eaten.
Charlene Dart, one of the co-chairmen of the Community Kitchen and the associate pastor at the First United Methodist Church, was in the middle of the action, helping to pack dinners for delivery.
"It's the family atmosphere, the smiles and the laughter and the visiting," said Dart, explaining why the diner was fun for her.
As the dinner wound down, Thornton donated his remaining table service, carry-out boxes, canned goods and cooked leftovers to the Community Kitchen. The Christmas trees went to homes.
Thornton's distribution of toys to needy families extended to 377 families this year, which he thought was another record.
Early on Monday morning, Thornton began preparing for next year's event. He picked up 35 angels at half-price for centerpieces for next year's dinner.
Thornton savored the comments of those who attended, the compliments about the food, the help he received, even seeing his boss, Scott Beckwith from Architectural Systems, out delivering dinners.
"I couldn't ask for a better group to work with," Thornton said. "It was beautiful."