ST. PETERSBURG — An annual tradition dating back more than three decades will be missing this year.
The Rosa Jackson Thanksgiving Dinner, which carried on after the death of the woman who started the free holiday meal for the poor and lonely, is being canceled because of family illness.
Darryl Jones, 48, who had faithfully carried on his grandmother's commitment for the past decade, is battling colon cancer.
Like his grandmother, Jones did all the cooking for the meal that drew as many as 300 guests at its height. He smoked, grilled and fried dozens of turkeys in his mother's back yard to serve those who showed up at the Campbell Park Recreation Center for the annual Thanksgiving meal.
"He still wanted to have it this year, but I told him not to,'' said his mother, Eloise Jones, 72, who is also ailing.
In recent years, she and her son — who lives in Apopka and returns to St. Petersburg to prepare the holiday dinner — have talked about ending the event. They said donations were getting difficult to come by and fewer people were attending because there were more opportunities for a free holiday meal.
Rosa Jackson started her free dinners in 1973, using her own money and inviting guests to her home on Eighth Avenue S.
"The way it started out, all her kids were gone and she was lonely. She invited other people to come and have dinner with her. The Lord laid it on her heart,'' Eloise Jones said of her mother, who retired as a dietary worker from the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines. "When she started out, it was just for the handicapped and senior citizens. Then it was for anyone who was hungry and lonely and wanted to fellowship.''
Sometimes the meal was delivered to those who couldn't attend.
Two years after it began, Mrs. Jackson moved the gathering to the Campbell Park Recreation Center in order to cater to the growing crowd. She also sought donations.
"In the beginning, it was her money and then some of the people that came and knew what she was doing gave donations,'' Mrs. Jackson's daughter said. "I wrote letters to different people and went around to different stores.''
Businesses were generous. One, Carter's Florist, prepared centerpieces for the dinner. There were many volunteers.
"We had one guy, he made the coffee every year. One lady made the punch," Eloise Jones recalled.
One year, Bill Foster, now St. Petersburg's mayor, showed up with his children, she said. Former City Council member Earnest Williams also came to help. People came for the meal from throughout St. Petersburg and even from Tampa and the beaches, Mrs. Jackson's daughter said.
"She was so nice. One Thanksgiving, we didn't have any food. She forgot to put aside anything for the family,'' her daughter said.
When she died of cancer in 1996, her family vowed that the dinner would continue. At least for this year, it will not.
"I was telling my daughter, I don't know what I'm going to do with myself this Thanksgiving,'' Eloise Jones said. "I was there with my mom and I was there with my son.''
Darryl Jones, who recently completed a regimen of radiation and chemotherapy, wants to continue his grandmother's legacy.
"I feel that I will be healthy again and I will be able to continue doing it for as long as I can,'' he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.