Ashland firefighters deliver an early Thanksgiving treat

Nov. 23—The Ashland Senior Center opened its doors Monday night for one of the most anticipated events in its annual calendar — a traditional Thanksgiving dinner cooked and served by Ashland Fire and Rescue.

"In the world now there's so much negativity, this is a chance to show some positivity," said Capt. Nick Palmesano, president of the Ashland Firefighters Union.

The union foots the bill for the annual fête as a way to give back to the community, he explained. He leaned over to squeeze more whipped cream onto a slice of pie as his 3-year-old daughter, Ellie, held the plate steady. She wove through the full tables with her blond pigtails swinging to do her part serving the nearly 100 seniors enjoying dinner.

Ellie and her 6-year-old brother, Gus, were helping their father for the first time, he said. The last time the dinner was held, they weren't old enough. For two years, the pandemic prevented the 12-year-old tradition.

Last year, Palmesano said, they did a drive-thru pie event to try to offer something, but it isn't the same. The firefighters look forward to the dinner as much as the seniors do. Off-duty firefighters do the cooking and most of the serving. On-duty firefighters often come and help between calls.

Before the evening's end, the distinctive tone came over radios attached to three men's belts, and they abandoned the pies, trotted out to their truck, turned on the lights and drove off into the night. But they returned to help as soon as the call was over.

"This is the maiden voyage," firefighter Westin Martin said of the first dinner in person since 2019.

Martin, not quite through his second year working at Ashland Fire and Rescue, took the helm of the dinner this year with a bright idea.

"In years past, we cooked in our kitchen at the station, but it's been pretty tricky since we don't have the industrial capacity. I reached out to Southern Oregon University this year, and they offered up their kitchen," he said.

With the help of a more sophisticated kitchen and some pies from Costco, three firefighters were able to cook Thanksgiving dinner for just under 100 people in an afternoon.

"We're used to working as a team," Martin said.

As firefighters worked around the diminutive kitchen in the Ashland Senior Center, plating up food and delivering it, seniors filled tables throughout the center with buoyant conversation.

"When we're driving down the highway, headed toward Medford, I start crying, and I ask my granddaughter, 'Am I really here? Look at these trees!" said recent Southern California transplant Elane Utley.

When her husband died two years ago, her grandchildren encouraged her to move to Ashland.

My friends in California, they ask me, 'So how do you like it there?' and I'm like, 'There's a lot of hippies here; it's like I'm in the '60s,'" she said.

This was her first community meal, she explained. The people she had been talking with for hours were strangers when the dinner began. So far, she said, the kindness of Ashland residents has often shocked her San Bernardino County sensibilities. She expects to need to clutch her purse, she joked, but recently a young man in the store offered to help her get things off the high shelf.

"The people in Ashland are so fabulous; it's been a blessing. You've got your good and your bad — but the love, the closeness," she said.

Renee Durgin smiled from an electric wheelchair, explaining she broke her foot two months ago. She's 72 and she's suffering from the beginning of a hereditary spinal disease that afflicts most of her family in old age.

"Boy, it sucks when you get old. But I won't give up, I keep trying. I can still walk a little," she said.

She was born in Medford in 1950, she said. The building is still there but it isn't a hospital anymore. It's an office building now. Durgin said she's been surprised at how much Talent and Phoenix have changed since the Almeda Fire. She lost everything in the fire, she said. Now she lives with her daughter, when she doesn't need extensive medical care.

"I came out tonight to try and meet some people; it gets hard to make friends when you're old," she said. "I had a nice time. The firefighters did a nice job."

Ashland's firefighters serve as the staff for the city's ambulance — they are all cross-trained as EMTs. Some at the Senior Center are well-known to firefighters and have called for aid often. Some they have never met before, Martin said.

"It's a lot of fun to give back, interact with people we may not see very often, some we may see quite a bit. Some of them may not have a lot of family in the area. We kind of become their family for the evening," Martin said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.