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Fish Friar Mike Conrad holds a role of split the pot tickets.

Volunteers, community support keeps Fort Calhoun fish fries going strong

Lori Sandhoefner — a key organizer of Fort Calhoun’s St. John the Baptist Church’s 22nd annual Fish Fry — said she expected more than 1,000 people from Fort Calhoun, Omaha and the surrounding area to be served inside Schwertley Hall or through take-out orders for the year’s first fish fry Friday evening.

Indeed, a zig-zagging line of people skirted Schwertley Hall’s walls a few minutes after the dinner began at 5 p.m., and it was nearly an hour wait for food once they joined the end of the line right inside the hall’s entrance. It took more than one hour, up to several, however, for the dinner’s conversational volunteers to prepare for the hungry crowd.

“You got this going over here, you got these people working here, there’s people setting up the fry room,” Sandhoefner, who has volunteered with the event nearly 20 years, said Friday morning. “These folks get it all ready … besides there’s so darn much good visiting going on. They like being part of the fish fry.”

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Steve Dethlefs fills a pan with piping hot fried fish.

Friday’s fish fry was the first of several weeks of dinners being served each Friday until April 12. The morning and afternoon of each dinner will see dozens of volunteers tin-foiling baked potatoes, mixing coleslaw, filling up condiment cups and, of course, frying fish for what’s become a community event over the last 22 years.

“We thought maybe we’d serve 100 or 150 the first one. We served 500,” said Jim Grove, who helped organize the very first fish fry, and still helps fry. “It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of fun, and we serve a lot of people.”

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From left: volunteers Jackie Henderson, Cheryl Baha and Eileen Justus prepare coleslaw for take-out orders.

At about 9 a.m. Friday morning, just after the church’s morning mass, about 20 volunteers were inside Schwertley Hall. Some made homemade cocktail sauce, off the top of their heads.

“It’s interesting, everybody says they love the cocktail sauce,” Sandhoefner said. “We don’t have a recipe. They put some of this in, some of that, and just kind of know.”

More volunteers wrapped baked potatoes in tin foil, preparing them for an afternoon bake. They mixed coleslaw ingredients, putting them into cups that would accompany the meal. They filled up condiment cups with tartar sauce, which Sandhoefner said is done by hand because pre-packaged containers aren’t as tasty, and they set out hot sauce.

“They put out the hot sauce because we have a Cajun fried fish, and then people splash on the hot sauce besides,” Sandhoefner said, shrugging her shoulders.

The 20 volunteers were only a fraction of the number of people that would be in the building eight hours later, so the soft drone of conversation was only a fraction of the volume of conversation at 5 p.m. Conversation, however, was still being had, which Sandhoefner said is one of the best parts of the morning preparations.

“I don’t usually come in the morning,” Sandhoefner said. “I’m here about noon and I’m here until 9 or 10 in the evening. So, my day’s pretty long as it is, but I miss when I don’t come, I miss visiting with the people and seeing them, and getting my hugs.”

Michael Brien, Rich Johnson, Jack Frary and Lew Brown were a few of the volunteers enjoying a cup of coffee and conversation while preparing food Friday morning. They took a break around 10 a.m., discussing the weather, where fish fry attendees would park and the new, approximately $40,000 fryers used for the dinners.

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Julie Jacobsen delivers a pan of piping hot fish to the servers.

At around 4:15 p.m., when another group of people returned to Schwertley Hall to begin frying fish, the volunteers passed off their conversation to hungry patrons as they focused on cooking and serving the food.

“It’s interesting, there’s people that come and sit in line, they’re here at 3 o’clock. They sit there and visit, and they wait for the fish fry, they say, ‘Well, we could sit here, or we could sit at home. Doesn’t matter,’” Sandhoefner said. “When we start serving at 5 p.m., it is crazy. Not only are we serving here, but the take out is ready to start too, so they have to be ready right off the bat…Then we quit taking take out orders at 8 o’clock. Then the fryers, the last hour, hour-and-a-half, they can step back a little bit.”

The crowd that arrived at 5 p.m. slightly dwindled just before 8 p.m. An official total served wasn’t known at that time, but Sandhoefner said she expects around 1,100 to 1,300 people from Fort Calhoun, Arlington, Blair, elsewhere in Washington County and Omaha to be served each Friday.

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Roxanne Wieland receives her plate.

About 400 of those served will pick up take-out orders out of the church basement. Students from Fort Calhoun volunteer to carry the take-out meals — mostly for Fort Calhoun residents — from the kitchen in Schwertley Hall to the church basement for pick-up.

The 400 take-out orders nearly equal the total amount of people served at the first fish fry in 1997, and, as seen Friday, the numbers don’t appear to be slowing down. Sandhoefner said the support of the community and volunteers keep the dinners going.

In addition to the people who enjoy a meal and conversation, the fish fry dinners give Fort Calhoun groups like the high school post-prom committee, Pioneers for Education, vacation Bible schools and Boy Scouts Troop 114 a chance to fundraise by bussing tables and selling desserts. The fish fry organizers also share some of the funds they raise with other local organizations.

“That’s our give to the community, is to give (groups) an opportunity to fundraise,” Sandhoefner said. “The other thing we do, is we tithe 10 percent of what we make, five goes to the Washington County Ministerial Association, and five percent splits between Fort Calhoun Fire and Fort Calhoun Rescue. That’s our way of giving back to the community.”

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