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Honoring a mother's legacy through a free Thanksgiving dinner

Brad Smith, owner of the Harbor Bar, honors his mother's legacy by offering free Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. David Clarey / RiverTown Multimedia

When Marilyn Graw owned the Hager City-based Harbor Bar, she would keep the business open on the holidays. She wanted people with nowhere to go, to have somewhere to go.

"She always kept the business open. Not because of greed, but because she knew that you couldn't even buy gas on a Christmas or a Thanksgiving," said Brad Smith, 59, Graw's son and now-owner of Harbor Bar.

For about the last 10 years Smith has been honoring his mother's memory with free Thanksgiving dinners every year. And for roughly the last five years, he has put on a free Christmas dinner as well.

The decision to offer the free meals started off as just a few people grabbing some food from the business. Now, the meal brings in anywhere from 65 to 90 people, and offers up about six whole turkeys, some ham and a few sides. It's all in an effort to help those in need, while paying respect to his mother, who died in 2007.

"I'm proud to be her son, this is something I can do to honor her legacy and her name," Smith said.

Before the free meal grew to where it is today though, Smith said he faced personal turmoil, which pushed him to better the event.

'All of a sudden I was one of those lost souls'

Smith's parents Marilyn and Dick Graw bought the bar in 1964. By 1977, Smith started to take it over; he officially bought the bar in 1984 from his parents and five years later he converted it into a full-service restaurant.

Almost always, Marilyn kept the bar open on the holidays until noon. The family would shut down the bar at noon for their own meal, then reopen at 5 p.m, Smith said.

Often the patrons didn't want to leave and Marilyn would invite them over to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. If it was Christmas time, Smith's mother would invite the wayward patrons over, and find a makeshift present for them as well — often a six-pack of their favorite beer.

"So we always had strangers that seemed to be spending the holidays with us," he said.

After Smith took the business over, he would occasionally cook a spare turkey for co-workers or for someone without Thanksgiving plans.

However in 2007, Smith was tested. His mother died and he and his wife divorced.

"When my mom died I was doing it nonchalantly; that's when I kicked it up a notch," he said. "All of a sudden I was one of those lost souls."

A few leftover turkeys

Kenny Beericks worked at the Harbor Bar for over 28 years, and usually worked the holiday meal with Smith. He said the first meal came from having about five or six turkeys left over, and making a buffet out of it.

"We said 'heck with it,' and ... we just kind of cooked them up one time," Beericks said.

Those who partook in the first meals were "kind of surprised too that it was all happening," Beericks, who no longer works at Harbor Bar, said.

Over time, Smith said he started to make the event more organized. He now publicizes it on Facebook, and local businesses will sometimes donate pies or other items for it.

"It's a real festive thing," Smith said.

Over the years Smith has been putting the meal on, Beericks said Smith's mother's legacy has shined through it.

"He was really close to his mother, [her death] helped him inspire him to keep her memory alive," he said.

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