While most people are just beginning Veterans Day preparations, or even still asleep for a few more hours, volunteers are already arriving at the West Albany High School cafeteria, ready to make an all-you-can-eat breakfast for about 750 appetites.
And quite a meal it is, even beyond the 200 pounds of ham. The day before the event, longtime Albany Optimist Club member and past president Norm Jager drives to Spring Valley Dairy in Salem and retrieves 250 pounds of liquid egg. ("They're nice and fresh," he said, "and we don't have to crack them anymore.") Fred Meyer donates pancake ingredients, as well as syrup, butter, milk and, perhaps most importantly, the unlimited coffee.
Albany's Veterans Day Breakfast has fortified the mid-valley through mornings of parades and remembrance since the 1970s, originally under the auspices of another group, according to Optimist Club charter member Gordon Vogt. Its host, menus and locations have changed over time — Jager said it once necessitated the use of the cafeterias at both West Albany and Memorial schools — but the sentiment remains the same: to acknowledge sacrifices past and present, and to help provide for the future.
For the last 24 years, it's been the Albany Optimist Club's biggest event, requiring six months of planning. On the day itself, club members and community volunteers — which include local veterans, high school students, Scouts and personnel from Linn-Benton Community College and the Linn County Sheriff's Office — are working griddles or brewing coffee as early as 4:30 a.m. to make the 6:30 rush. (See information box for complete event details.)
But Optimist Club member Jim Stom, who helps coordinate the breakfast (although he demurs at such descriptions with "I'm just one of many"), describes this potentially chaotic atmosphere as a "well-tuned machine. Everybody knows what to do. They just jump in and find a place. It goes very smoothly, honestly."
"It's a festive mood," fellow Optimist John Berg added. "We're looking forward to serving the community and at the same time generating funds for the organizations we support."
Ultimately, that's been the Albany Optimist Club's mission since its 1964 foundation, and money raised by the breakfast and other events is directed toward mid-valley youth activities and services. The club supports efforts by the ABC House (Vogt said the group helped with its new building, which opened in February), the Boys & Girls Club of Albany, Ophelia's Place, Jackson Street Youth Services: Albany House, CASA of Linn County, FISH of Albany, and others.
Optimist Club members also ring Christmas bells for the Salvation Army at Bi-Mart. With assistance from the Boys & Girls Club, they help children shop for their families at Walmart for the holidays. They also honor mid-valley youth with the annual Youth Appreciation Awards ceremony at LBCC. And if you happen to be driving southbound near the Santiam Rest Area on weekends, be sure to stop in for Optimist-provided beverages at its coffee trailer — which will also be serving coffee at the Veterans Day Parade itself, long after bellies are full from breakfast and communion among veterans and civilians alike.
"It's funny. because everyone runs into everyone," current Optimist Club President Lori Stewart said of the morning feed. "People come in waves. It's nice to see community in one place."
"I like seeing some of my old classmates," Jager added, "some of the people I was in the service with — some even in uniform. A nice breakfast puts you in the mood for Veterans Day."