Christmas dinner crew loses one of its own

by Jim Boyle

It takes a community to put on the annual Elk River Community Christmas Dinner, but one of the regular cast of characters behind the success of the event will not be there this year.

Kent Harell with his chef’s hat on and standing at his usual post where he was the meat cutter for 20-plus years.

Kent Harell died unexpectedly this past year of natural causes. He was 64.

The 23rd Annual Community Christmas Dinner will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Dec. 25 at the Elk River American Legion.

On all but one of the community Christmas dinners he could be found in the corner of the kitchen, cutting upwards of 2,000 pounds of meat that is prepared each year.

“He’s going to be greatly missed,” Roger Kostreba said. “He helped out in every aspect.”

That included set-up on Christmas Eve, and clean-up when his job with Sara Lee (formerly McGarvey Coffee) allowed.

Kostreba is confident that others will step up in Harell’s absence but no matter what, his presence cannot be replaced.

In between slicing 100-plus pounds of ham and carving hundreds of turkeys, he would spar with Kostreba about who arrived first that morning.

If Kostreba got there at 4 a.m., you could be assured that Harell got there at 3:59 a.m.

This year Kostreba will beat him and the dinner will go on as planned, much like it has each of the past 22 years.

“The good Lord always does something to step up the process,” Kostreba said. “We don’t know why (Harell) is gone, but we trust he (the Lord) has a plan.”

Helped Scout group recover, dinner flourish
Harell described himself as a bean counter. This former Elk River resident who called Livonia Township home before his death, handled accounts receivable for McGarvey Coffee early in his career, which helped get the dinner off the ground. He had plenty of contacts to line up food and deliveries.

He served as the treasurer for Cub Scout Pack 111, which had nearly died before his arrival.
It was Tom Penna of Elk River and other scouts’ parents who agreed not to let the Cub Scout Pack 111 dissolve.  The group was running in the red to the tune of $350, not to mention the long list of achievements Cub Scouts needed to advance to Boy Scouts.

Harell and his wife, Ellen, were two of the adults who stepped up and said it was important to keep the pack alive. As treasurer Harell helped develop several fund-raisers that ranged from selling wrapping paper to wreaths. There were also tree-planting exercises.

Kostreba said he was getting tired of those and he and Penna had learned of a community dinner while at a Scout meeting in the St. Cloud area.

Kostreba later made the pitch for a community Christmas dinner to the leadership of Pack 111 which was headed by Penna at the time.

As Kostreba recalls it, they looked at him rather incredulously but agreed to table the discussion after developing a few questions like soliciting volunteers, a place to hold and raising start-up funds.

“Little did they know I had $1,000 in my pocket from the Legion,” Kostreba said.

Penna, who went through the labor of assembling Den leaders, knew it would not be an easy task.
“But we did it,” he said.

Kostreba secured the Legion hall, and collected a few more donations from organizations like the Elk River Lions.

The committee reached a consensus to move forward with the dinner, which meant the work was just beginning.

The first dinner served about 150 people, and attendance steadily climbed from there.

Eventually, delivery of meals was added.

The dinner serves 600 to 800 at the Legion annually, and another 300 to 400 meals are delivered. Leftover food is donated to CAER.

“Kent loved doing the Christmas dinners,” Penna said. “He took pride in the dinner. He talked about it all year long.”

He talked about it at home with his wife and his children — Dustin, Allison and Kiel, and why wouldn’t he? They all had a part in the dinner, too.

He talked about it on hunting and fishing trips with Penna, too.

“It was always important to Kent,” Ellen said, noting he only missed one dinner while they were on a trip to China to visit their youngest son and his wife who were living there at the time. “We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves on Christmas if we weren’t there.”

There will be a memorial at the dinner for Harell to remember his contributions to the dinner.
“I don’t know where we’ll find that type of dedication,” Penna said of his friend’s commitment to the success of the dinner. “It fills an important community need.”