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Denver Gives Thanks for Daddy Bruce, Who Hands Out 50,000 Free Dinners on Turkey Day

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It’s a day seemingly like most days at Daddy Bruce’s Bar-B-Q, a ramshackle restaurant plunked down in one of Denver’s shabbier neighborhoods. The ribs are smoking in the four-foot pit and the lunchtime crowd is pouring in, led through a succession of rooms by the husky smell of the house barbecue sauce. But today is different at Daddy Bruce’s, a little hectic, and as Thanksgiving approaches each day promises to be more so. Daddy Bruce is off somewhere trying to figure out how to cook the deer meat the Colorado Division of Wildlife will soon be sending him. There are already 1,700 pounds of donated potatoes sitting out back, a mere drop in the bucket—another trailer-truckload is expected. Two tons of ribs are coming, not to mention three tons of turkey.

Turkey? In a rib joint? That’s right, turkey—we’re talking turkey about the spirit of Thanksgiving. We’re talking about the Thanksgiving feast and clothing fair put on each year by the 85-year-old Daddy Bruce. Some 50,000 people partook of his free fare last year. Even more are expected this time around, many of them hungry and homeless, some not. Last year half a dozen lines snaked around the block, as the humble and well-heeled alike made their way to the tables set up in the street, loaded their plates with turkey parts, ribs and fixings, then sat down to eat.

The labors of some 2,500 volunteers, aroused by the rib man’s enthusiasm, oil the festive process. The volunteers sort thousands of items of clothing and, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, pile them on tables in front of Daddy Bruce’s—first come, first served. On the Big Day they package hundreds of dinners and send them to shut-ins, gratis, by way of a fleet of cabs and delivery trucks.

In the middle of last year’s repast, radio and TV crews announced over the airwaves that they’d run out of desserts, and the response was amazing. Within the hour trucks showed up from nowhere bearing cakes and pies. Daddy Bruce himself looked on with warm and unmixed feelings about what he’d wrought 23 years ago this Thanksgiving, when he took a truckful of ribs to a nearby park and simply started feeding the hungry. “I’ve seen a whole lot of raggedy days myself,” he says, chuckling.

Daddy Bruce Randolph grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark. where, after his parents separated, he was passed around among relatives. As a teenager he picked cotton and worked in a bauxite mine. He recalls buying, when he was in his early 20s, his first hog for $5, butchering it and barbecuing it with a special sauce concocted by his grandmother, a freed slave. He promptly opened a ribs stand, married and fathered Bruce Jr. (who now runs a Daddy’s in Boulder). After his wife died, he moved to Pampa, Texas and for 25 years ran a successful restaurant, liquor store, dance hall and cab company.

Then, he says, his world fell apart. He married again—and the subsequent divorce cost him plenty. At 59, and living in Denver, he says, “I couldn’t afford a pack of cigarettes.” Daddy Bruce mopped floors for a time, then one day he became inspired. He drew a picture of a barbecue pit and took it to a bank in nearby Englewood. After checking his history in Pampa, the bank lent him $1,000 and the rest is local history.

These days spending time with Daddy Bruce in Denver is like spending time with royalty. He walks into Denver’s Dept. of Public Works, where they are painting signs—the city is renaming the street outside his restaurant in his honor—and a city worker jumps up to meet him. “Just wanted to shake your hand,” says another worker about the forthcoming Bruce Randolph Avenue. “You deserve this, sir.” Lately the honors and awards have been coming to the restaurateur in a torrent (Rep. Patricia Schroeder just nominated him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom). Yet Daddy Bruce is not, at least in financial terms, a rich man. He lives, as he has for years, in a scruffy set of rooms above his restaurant.

He believes he is on God’s errand and gives the bulk of his money away. The Thanksgiving supper is just one of his blowouts. He also entertains friends en masse at Easter, Christmas and on his birthday. “I’m just one of His servants,” he explains. “I try to do His will, not my will.” Then he adds, unconvincingly, “If I did my will, I’d mess up a lot.”