When O'Neal Larkin Jr. was a 15-year-old fleeing an abusive home up North, the people of Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood gave him the comfort and loving guidance he craved.
And after he served in the Army and returned to Clearwater, the city government gave him a job that turned into a 22-year career doing work he felt mattered.
So after he retired in 1998 and spent some time fishing and reflecting on his life, he concluded he needed to do something to thank the neighborhood and the city that had nurtured him.
He decided to feed them — lots of them.
His annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner, held at his home on Marshall Street each year since 2003 on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, drew around 100 people the first year.
Last year, he fed 1,338.
"It's something I guess God just wanted to happen," Larkin said matter-of-factly.
Everyone is welcome and everyone eats free, thanks to donations from individuals and business sponsors recruited by Larkin, who was a maintenance supervisor in the city parks and recreation department. If the till needs a little more cash, Larkin will pull it from his own pocket.
While he is the chief organizer of the dinner and the host, he gets a lot of help. In the beginning, it came from seven buddies he grew up with, caddied with at the Clearwater Country Club and has stayed close to after they all retired.
As youngsters, they learned to play golf together, initially on segregated courses and later on integrated public courses. They started a golf tournament the day after Thanksgiving called the Holiday Swing. They were the founding members of Community Golfers, a group that focuses on golf and building community spirit.
Larkin calls his dinner the Community Golfers and Short Block Technology Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner. Community Golfers members help out, and Short Block Technologies, a company on the edge of North Greenwood that manufactures personal watercraft engines, is a longtime sponsor, providing the turkeys and some other items for the dinner.
Some 200 volunteers help with everything from picking up donations to setting up chairs to serving food. Among the volunteers are "the ladies of North Greenwood, all good cooks," Larkin said. They take home food that is donated, cook it and bring it piping hot to the dinner at assigned times. The smells of baking hams, steaming collards, candied yams, cakes and pies waft from homes all over the neighborhood as the dinner hour approaches. Churches empty and police manage traffic congestion as hundreds of people descend on Larkin's home with stomachs growling.
Volunteers working the serving lines or helping out in other ways routinely include the mayor and other city officials, leaders of area nonprofits, and even teenagers, who Larkin is gratified to see return year after year and ask for assignments.
With so many people coming to visit, Larkin and his wife, Nedra, move their furniture into a Uhaul truck to make space in their house, and they cover their yard with food tents, picnic tables and folding chairs. Larkin gives Nedra credit for allowing him to disrupt their life and home that way.
"Last year, we had 138 cakes in our living room," Larkin, a father of four, said with a smile. He returns the favor by helping with her favorite community project, a Christmas party for the neighborhood's children that includes food, games, gifts and a visit from Santa — at their home, of course.
A few years ago, Larkin decided to start using the dinner to recognize people who have done something noteworthy or have been examples of courage or perseverance. One of the first honorees was a 9-year-old girl who had been horribly burned in a fire. Larkin chooses the award winners himself — this year, 22 people will be recognized — and tells his assembled guests about each one.
The awards are his opportunity to "lift up the community," and he said it helps contribute to the positive vibe that permeates the day.
"It's such a unique experience," he said. "You know, I've never heard a curse word there. People give up their place in line for the elderly. Police help disabled people cross the street. I am truly proud to be a citizen of Clearwater."
Isay Gulley, a longtime leader in North Greenwood, has known Larkin for more than 25 years. He has a "community outreach spirit and he's behind good causes," she said.
"He came up with his own individual way for him and his family to give back. It's a good feeling for him," she said. And the growth of the pre-Thanksgiving dinner from a "mini to a mega event," she said, has boosted corporate donations in North Greenwood and increased volunteerism there, she said.
Larkin acknowledges that the road he traveled to reach this point in his life was a rough one. He was born into a broken home. He was on his own by age 15. He's been shot twice and bitten by a rattlesnake. He survived, he said, thanks to God and "a lot of elderly people here who kept me in the right way."
"I just believe in my heart that God has let me live to become a servant for him," Larkin said.
But there is another reason that every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, he opens the door a little wider to welcome more people inside.
"It's a replacement, I believe, for a family I never had," he said. "Everybody at my house for Thanksgiving dinner. These holidays are the most joyful time of my life."
Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4152 or [email protected] News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.