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Annual Oak Harbor Community Harvest dinner a tribute to founder
Coordinating a feast that serves an entire community is no small task.
Jack Stiltz tackles that role every Thanksgiving in Oak Harbor with the support of a dedicated core group of organizers and an army of volunteers.
And he said he still draws inspiration from another man he called his best friend.
Keith Bartlett is still heavy on his mind.
“I always think about him, especially this time of year,” Stiltz said. “My heart is still with him.”
It was nine years ago that Stiltz walked into the kitchen of Bartlett’s Oak Harbor restaurant to discover him dead from a heart attack.
It was only hours earlier, in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning, that the two were socializing and going over details of the North Whidbey Community Harvest. Stiltz remembers the panic on Bartlett’s face when he realized he’d forgotten to cook the giblets for the event.
“He went in there real, real early in the morning to cook those,” Stiltz said. “He was panicked about that. That’s what kind of got him.”
“There was a lot of stress on us,” Stiltz said, “especially him and I.”
Stiltz makes it a point each year to reflect on his best friend’s devotion to the community before meals are served at the North Whidbey Community Harvest, which gets underway for the 12th year at 11 a.m. Thanksgiving Day at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge.
Bringing together the people of Oak Harbor for a free full-course meal served on fine linen tablecloths with silverware and real plates on Thanksgiving Day was Bartlett’s vision. It was his way of thanking the community for its business.
Bartlett was owner of the former Pot Belly Deli on State Highway 20.
The idea was so heartfelt, and event so well received, that it’s continued to blossom. The desire to help became contagious.
“It’s really a community effort,” said T.J. Fisher, which part of the event’s coordinating team along with her husband Scott.
“It was envisioned by a very small group of very dedicated men with the support of dedicated women. That was their vision. It has continued to thrive and reach out to more and more people simply because so many people in the community are eager to participate.”
Stiltz, owner of Bay Printing, remembers sitting with Bartlett when the idea was conceived. They needed a chef to pull it off, and soon spoke to Scott Fraser, owner of Frasers Gourmet Hideway, to gauge his interest.
Fraser liked the idea and wanted to help.
Scott and T.J. Fisher also got involved from the start.
“I like the fact that Thanksgiving is a day of giving rather than receiving,” said Scott Fisher, who works as a maintenance contractor at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station after retiring from the Navy.
“I’ve always been a strong believer of that.”
The first event drew 500-700 people, according to Stiltz, but has since grown considerably.
“We’re pushing 4,000,” he said.
Word eventually got out that the event was for all-comers — an opportunity for people in the community to gather and interact.
“It could be a lonely senior like an elderly widow or a young serviceman who doesn’t know anybody here,” T.J. Fisher said. “To see them open up and blossom from that day’s attention, to leave not just with a warm Thanksgiving meal, but also leftovers. … It’s great fun to attend and it’s great fun to participate.”
About a dozen people make up the North Whidbey Community Harvest’s organizing team, aided by an additional 300-plus volunteers.
While Fraser and his restaurant team handle kitchen duties and much of the cooking, there’s a separate team that prepares turkeys.
Scott Fisher and Jim Croft cook turkeys in deep fryers, while Roger Anglum smokes turkeys and hams.
Other coordinators are K.C. and Skip Pohtilla, Carol Croft, Dale Sandri, Wayne Locke, Marty Malloy, Theresa Reed and Tim Hassler. The large volunteer workforce, along with the support of businesses, organizations and individuals, keeps the community event going, Skip Pohtilla said.
That assistance includes the Oak Harbor Fire Department, which helps with cleanup, and Elks Lodge, which donates use of its facility.
The Whidbey Cruzers vintage car club handles delivery of meals to those unable to attend in person.
The event costs about $17,000, all coming from donations, though donations are not required to attend.
Stiltz is sure that Bartlett would be pleased with how the North Whidbey Community Harvest has grown and evolved into an anticipated gathering of the community.
It was important to Stiltz to continue the event in his friend’s honor. He misses Bartlett, their trips to Canada and skiing adventures.
“We were like family,” he said.
Thanksgiving dinner for North Whidbey Community Harvest will be served 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
To give or receive
Those interested in requesting a delivery may call 360-240-9338 in advance or call the Elks Lodge on Thanksgiving Day.
Those who wanting to make a donation toward the event may do so by dropping one off to Stiltz at Bay Printing on Barrington Avenue, or mailing it to: North Whidbey Community Harvest, Bay Printing, 1131 S.E. Ely St., Oak Harbor, WA 98277. Checks should be made out to “Community Harvest.”