Virgil and Teri Garcia prepare a Thanksgiving meal in 2002 for patrons of the Good Samaritan Outreach Center. Despite Mr. Garcia's death, the tables will still be set this holiday.
Virgil Garcia's absence at the Good Samaritan Outreach Center today will be as pervasive as the smell of cooked turkey and homemade pies.
His familiar hands - as at ease slicing desserts or slathering on gravy as they were wrapped in a handshake - won't dish out the traditional holiday meal today.
Nor will his familiar smile - and the questions that accompanied it: How's the food? Do you need mittens or a hat? - move through those faces around the dinner tables at the annual Thanksgiving Eve meal at the soup kitchen on Broadway in Toledo's south end.
On Nov. 10, the long-time volunteer at Good Samaritan died after what loved ones expected to be a relatively routine back surgery to ease pain from a decade-old work injury. He was a welder who learned under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather after his father died when he was only 12.
Sipping ice water and eating crackers after the operation, 46-year-old Mr. Garcia spoke briefly with his wife.
Lynn Mabry prepares slices of cake before lunch at the Good Samaritan Outreach Center.
"He said 'I feel really good. Call the kids. Tell them I'm OK,' " said Teri Garcia, his wife of 21 years. "I went to call the kids."
A short time later, Mr. Garcia's heart lurched and stalled.
Having phoned the children, Mrs. Garcia returned to the recovery room to find Mr. Garcia surrounded by a frantic knot of doctors and nurses. Despite tubes and needles and machinery now hooked into his failing body, Mr. Garcia was calm when he turned to his wife.
" 'I love you,' he said," his widow recalled. "I said, 'I love you too.' "
Within minutes, he was dead.
In Toledo, Good Samaritan staff and clients were stunned.
They'd lost more than a friend. The father of four was part deliveryman, part cook, and part repairman at this soup kitchen that serves breakfast and dinner nearly every day.
A member of Calvary Assembly of God and a deacon at Victory Church of God and Lighthouse Holiness Tabernacle, he'd befriended an invisible population through his work at Good Samaritan: Toledo's homeless and mentally ill Vietnam veterans. He helped them find shelter and medical help.
"We have people living under the High-Level Bridge We have these people who struggle at the lower rungs of society, and he did whatever was needed," said Greg Shapiro, president of Good Samaritan's board of directors.
Digging into his own pockets, Mr. Garcia had taken troubled youths, many of them gang members, to the Toledo Museum of Art and to the Toledo Ballet. When they considered dropping out of school, he'd walked them through the hallways at the University of Toledo.
Rather than telling the teens about a world they hadn't considered, Mr. Garcia opened it up for them.
"He wanted them to be comfortable there, to know they could be part of it if they wanted," Mrs. Garcia said.
Good Samaritan staff faced another hurdle after his death.
Teri, Mr. Garcia's wife of 20 years, is the center's director. She has taken a temporary leave, in part, to be with the couple's children.
Staff and board members momentarily considered suspending operations or scaling back the center's annual Thanksgiving dinner, said the Rev. Loran Miracle, another board member.
No one would allow it.
"The minute we thought that, everyone said, 'You can't do that,'●" he said.
Donations, lagging badly this year, begin to trickle in. New benefactors have stepped forward with casseroles and other help. Volunteers doubled their efforts.
So today, the center will offer its Thanksgiving meal for the needy after all. Rather than a special ceremony in Mr. Garcia's memory, staff will continue the compassion that Mr. Garcia so easily embodied, Pastor Miracle said.
"We're honoring him by feeding the people that he loved and cared for," he said.
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