HOULTON, Maine — Sean Conlogue is not complaining about having to cook.
To the longtime member of the Houlton Lodge of Elks, cooking is a way to both give back to others and make them happy. That is what Conlogue and more than 35 other Elks Club members and volunteers were doing Sunday afternoon, as they put on the club’s 28th annual senior citizens dinner for the community.
Less than 45 minutes after the first plate was served, tables on the first floor of the expansive lodge were packed. Guests mingled and conversed over plates of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables, rolls, pies and more.
On a nearby stairwell, a chorus of Houlton High School students sang Christmas carols. As a number of people stood at the foot of the stairwell to watch, volunteers hustled by, handing out plates, taking coats and opening doors for guests.
As diners came in the door, volunteers swooped out, carrying containers full of food to be delivered to senior citizens who could not make it to the club for dinner.
In the kitchen, cooks stood over steaming pots and pans, slicing turkey, stirring gallons of gravy and forming an assembly line to cover plates with food.
Conlogue has overseen dinner preparations for 27 years.
“We started out early on Saturday, getting all of the food ready,” he said. “We spent all day preparing, because everything here is homemade. It is a lot of work, but no one complains. We all have a good time.”
Brad Butler, the club’s exalted ruler, was busy at Sunday’s dinner, chatting with guests, busing tables, delivering food and making sure everything ran smoothly.
“We have done this event since 1981, and we fund it largely based on donations from area businesses and organizations,” he said. “We could not do it without those donations or the Elks Club members and volunteers, who put so much time and energy into doing a great thing for our senior citizens.”
Conlogue said a major goal is to make the dinner better every year. During its inaugural year, he said, 50 people attended the event. In 2007, its largest year, 711 people were served.
“Last year, we were down slightly, having served 689,” he said. “This year, we are looking to exceed the 2007 numbers. We have already sent 400 meals to go, the dining room is packed, and people are still coming in, so we might just do it.”
Marie Thibodeau, of Houlton, was attending the dinner for the first time. Although she grew up in Aroostook County, she spent 42 years living in New Hampshire before moving back to southern Aroostook.
“I had no idea this was going on,” Thibodeau, who was attending the event with several friends, said Sunday. “I just moved back, and my friends called me this morning and invited me to join them. I got out my best dress and came down here.”
Thibodeau said she was “overwhelmed” by the experience.
“This is great,” she said. “I feel like I am part of their family. This is a fabulous meal, and everyone is so nice, treating me like I’m an honored guest. I can’t wait until next year.”
Thibodeau’s friend Evelyn Martin agreed.
“I’ve been here several times, and it just gets better every year,” she said. “You do feel like you are family here, and you get to see people that you haven’t seen for a while. I really look forward to it when December comes.”
That is exactly the type of satisfaction that prompts Elks Club members to make the dinner bigger and better each year, Conlogue said Sunday.
“This really gets you in the holiday sprit, and people love it,” he said. “This is a chance to give back. That is my favorite part of doing this, and I know a lot of other club members agree with me.”