Marty Bryant, whom Ashland residents will remember for his annual Thanksgiving dinner to feed the hungry, is recovering from successful surgery for lung cancer.

Marty Bryant, whom Ashland residents will remember for his annual Thanksgiving dinner to feed the hungry, is recovering from successful surgery for lung cancer.

With the help of half a dozen other community volunteers, Bryant in 1993 created Ashland's first free, public Thanksgiving dinner at the Ashland Armory. The effort led to the creation of Caring Friends, which served meals weekly at the Ashland Community Center through 2006, when Bryant and his wife of 30 years, Sylvia, moved to Wilsonville to be closer to their daughter Kayla.

"It looks like I'm going to be OK," said Bryant. "They took out a third of my right lung. They said they got all the cancer. ... It came on fast because there was no sign of it in a checkup a year ago."

Bryant said he was never a serious smoker and hasn't had a cigarette in 30 years.

An Air Force veteran and accomplished musician and road manager, Bryant said he became inspired to help battle hunger while living in Lake Tahoe, where he noticed that many veterans and children weren't getting enough to eat and started community feeds there.

"Food is not a privilege. Driving is a privilege. Food is a right," said Bryant, who is retired and working on a book of his colorful life growing up as a valet at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, where he rubbed elbows with the greats in blues, jazz and R&B, including Sarah Vaughan, Red Foxx and Smoky Robinson.

He was road manager, producer and did other roles with James Brown, Sister Sledge and the Stylistics, co-writing the latter group's first gold song, "You're a Big Girl Now." Bryant settled down in Tahoe, then Ashland, noting, "The partying on the road was too much for me."

He continued his work helping musicians here, said Judith Stevens of Jacksonville, the first president of Caring Friends.

"Marty was a man of vision who had the confidence to set things in motion that benefit the community, Stevens said. "He was shrewd enough to surround himself with dedicated volunteers to help carry it out."

The Thanksgiving feed, attended by hundreds of volunteers and homeless people, showed Bryant that a weekly dinner was in dire need, said Stevens, noting it was soon followed by Uncle Food's Diner by Ashland Peace House.

"For a small guy, he's got a huge heart. He feels people should reach out and help other people. If he feels it's doable, he won't take no for an answer," she said.

In the Ashland New Year's Day Flood of 1997, Caring Friends supplied food, clothing and furniture for 200 homes, earning Bryant the James M. Ragland Ashland Volunteer Spirit Community Service Award of 1998.

"Marty was the main motivator. He has a way, if there's a need. He made a mark," said Virginia King, secretary and treasurer for many years of Caring Friends.

The couple moved to Wilsonville in 2006 to be near Kayla, who graduated from Ashland High School and started at Portland State University. Sylvia is getting her associate degree in medical transcription.

Bryant is beginning chemotherapy and may need radiation. He is just shy of Medicare age; he has some insurance but the family faces considerable expense, he said. Donations may be made in his name at Umpqua Bank branches.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.