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BVU's Christmas Dinner Began With an Ovation

December 17, 2021 9:17am

(story by Tim Gallagher)

Sodexo General Manager Ken Allen stood before Buena Vista University students at the start of the 35th Annual Christmas Dinner. Students, faculty, and staff applauded Allen’s efforts. Students, soon joined by faculty and staff, then rose for an ovation that went on and on.

“You’re giving me goosebumps,” Allen said. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support of ‘Beaver Nation.’”

“We love you, Ken!” a student shouted.

Allen has missed just two Christmas Dinners in his 20 years in food service at BVU. Both absences were tied to battles with cancer. The first, a miraculous effort surrounding colon cancer in 2010, resulted in Allen being Life-Flighted from Spencer to Sioux Falls, S. Dak., following his colon bursting for the second time. He would eventually spend six weeks at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center in Sioux Falls.

“I don’t remember my 50th birthday that year,” Allen says. “I was comatose. I’m unbelievably blessed to have survived that bout. I tell people about the importance of early detection of colon cancer. Mine was Stage 3. Doctors were successful in removing it.”

His second saga occurred in 2020 as Allen fought both a blood cancer and a soft-tissue cancer. The initial diagnosis came from Dr. Kyle Glienke, a 2009 BVU graduate whom Allen used to serve meals as a student. Ultimately, doctors at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center in Sioux City referred Allen to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he received a stem cell transplant in August of 2020.

“My wife, Nancy, and I lived at the Gift of Life Transplant Home in Rochester for six weeks as I was treated on an outpatient basis,” he remembers. “My organs were all in good working order, so I was a good candidate for the transplant. I lost 35 pounds and have since gained back 20.”

Allen’s hustle around Campus Dining has been thwarted a bit this fall as he recovers from a broken left hip sustained in a freak accident during a day of travel on Oct. 30. Surgeons inserted three screws to repair the damage. He returned to work 10 days later and used a walker for a couple of weeks before graduating to a cane. He now moves freely on his own, taking time to rest at the end of his busy days.

Perhaps no day is busier than the one featuring Christmas Dinner, a feast in which BVU faculty and staff join Allen’s crew in serving several hundred students, most of them dressed their best. Sodexo Executive Chef Phillip Bond created this year’s menu, which consisted of turkey, ham, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, Oreo fluff, and more. Chaplain Dr. Melanie Hauser coordinated the 35th annual celebration.

“This is the one time all year students can all eat together if they wish,” Allen says. “On top of that, they’re served by members of the faculty and staff, who really work to help our staff as we couldn’t do it on our own. It’s so fun seeing students dressed so nicely, singing with the choir, and then taking pictures with each other and Buford. It’s a wonderful tradition that takes several people weeks to plan.”

One that began with a well-deserved standing ovation.

“Witnessing an ovation like that gives me validation that what we do here makes a difference,” Allen says. “I work with students every day. I always make eye contact and ask them how they’re doing.”

On this night, the applause illustrated the love “Beaver Nation” has for him.