“You can get anything you want at Jane’s Restaurant.”
The year was 1969. Woodstock’s three days of peace and music had made history only months before, and one of the event’s stars, Arlo Guthrie, was on the minds of 16 Illinois alumni and students one Sunday night in mid-November. The occasion was a pre-Thanksgiving meal at a small apartment on 6th and Stoughton in Champaign, hosted by Larry Weber, ’69 ENG, MS ’71 ENG, PHD ’75 ENG; Jim Ziech ’70 ENG, MS ’71 ENG; and Marty Potts, ’70 ENG.
Fifty years later, Weber recalls that it was Potts’ idea: “Marty said, ‘You know, this is the last time we’re all going to be together, and so wouldn’t it be nice, Jane, if you got a little turkey and we invited a lot of people over, and we had a sort of potluck?’”
Jane the turkey-maker was Jane Johnson Weber, ’69 LAS, Larry’s then-fiance and soon-to-be wife, who was game for the idea. She remembered that the experience was “a lot like ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’” the famed 18-minute Guthrie song that takes place on Thanksgiving Day. Ziech added to that Guthriesque atmosphere by tweaking the song’s first line and making a sign for the festivities: “You can get anything you want at Jane’s Restaurant.” And for those 16 revelers, for one day, that was absolutely true.
But, as it turned out, that was only the beginning. The friends had such a good time that they decided to have dinner on the Sunday before Thanksgiving again in 1970. And in 1971. And in 1972… . And, 50 years later, they’re still celebrating “Sunday-before-Thanksgiving.”
For many years, Larry and Jane Weber hosted the event. That second year, Larry was a graduate student in electrical engineering, Jane was teaching kindergarten, and they lived in a converted garage on Springfield Avenue in Urbana. “They called it a carriage house,” says Jane, laughing. “We had the upstairs.” The place was small and not ideal for a Thanksgiving celebration, but they hosted anyway. Some of the original celebrants brought their friends, and many recent graduates came back to town for the event. When all was said and done, there were 33 people in the Webers’ “tiny, tiny apartment.” They had dinner in the living room, which was about the size of a one-car garage. “It was so crowded,” Larry recalls, “that if anybody had to go to the bathroom or anything, everybody had to move.”
Among the place’s other shortcomings was its total lack of accessibility. The Webers’ good friend George Stupp, ’69 ENG, MS ’71 ENG, who would go on to direct the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, was a quadriplegic. Larry recalls that, at the time, Stupp had “this motorized wheelchair that had a big, heavy battery.” They had to carry him up and down their narrow staircase so that he could attend the event. But he wouldn’t have missed it. At the time of his death in 2018, Stupp had come to the dinner every year, making the 11-hour drive from Maryland with a friend.
A definitive lack of space soon became one of the event’s hallmarks. From apartment to apartment, and finally to a Lynn Street house in Champaign, the event moved with the Webers. The places got progressively bigger, but never big enough. Guests were bringing their children, and new friends joined the fun, with attendees coming from as far away as Arizona, Colorado and Canada. Year after year, “we still had to move everything out of the living room,” Jane says, laughing. By 1977, when they bought their house, Larry was on the University’s electrical engineering faculty, conducting research on plasma screen technology.
As the years passed, certain traditions emerged. “Each year we sing a few lines of ‘You can get anything you want at Jane’s Restaurant,’” says Tom Ziech, ’73 ENG, perhaps prompted by his brother Jim’s sign, still a holdover from the first dinner. There also are toasts. Guests cry out, “Oskee-Wow-Wow!” during the meal. And there are strict cooking assignments. Jane always makes the turkey. Jim makes the gravy. Tom carves the turkey and makes the green bean casserole (using the recipe from a Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup can plus a secret ingredient).
After hosting the event for two decades, in 1990 the Webers sold their house in Champaign, having relocated the year before to New York State, where Larry owned a plasma screen technology company, Plasmaco. (His company was eventually purchased by Panasonic and provided the basis for full-color plasma-screen televisions.) It was only appropriate that their last meal at the nearly empty Lynn Street house was “Sunday-
before-Thanksgiving,” 1989. “Finally, we didn’t have to move out the furniture to fit everybody in the room,” Larry says.
In 1990, Marc Taylor, ’73 BUS—who makes a mean batch of sweet potatoes—took over hosting duties at his house in Joliet, Ill., and has been doing so ever since. Now the Webers are among the many friends and Illini who travel across the country every year to attend the event. And they wouldn’t miss it, either.
At this point, Larry and Jane have the bragging rights of being the only people who have been to all 50 meals. Others have come close, and eight of the 16 original attendees were at the 50th celebration in 2018 among a crowd of 41 guests. According to Jane, Jim Ziech has missed only one or two dinners, Tom Ziech has missed one, and founder Marty Potts has missed a couple. “Over the years, one excuse we thought was pretty poor,” Larry says, “was Marty Potts’, who decided to go to a Bears game instead of coming to the Sunday-before-Thanksgiving dinner, and we gave him a lot of guff for that.” Years later, they’re still giving Potts guff. “He’s the one who made us have that dinner in the first place,” Jane says.
Fifty years on, Bears game or no Bears game, Sunday-before-Thanksgiving dinner is still one of the highlights of the year for this tight-knit group of Illinois alumni. “It’s on my calendar,” says Tom Ziech. “At 1 o’clock, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, for the rest of my life, I will be attending this wonderful event.”