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John Lundy, Forum News Service, Published March 03 2013

Duluth diner often picks up the tab

DULUTH, Minn. – Dean Davidson’s habit started with an impulse.

“One day I walk into Bridgeman’s and there was a bunch of people, and I said this would be kind of cool if I paid everybody’s bill,” the Morgan Park resident said.

He did some quick calculations, guessed it would cost $300 to pick up everyone’s tab and knew he didn’t have quite that much.

So he covered one table’s meals, anonymously.

But that was just the beginning.

“I decided maybe what I’ll do is I will start buying people’s breakfast until it gets to be 30 people,” said Davidson, who is in his 60s and works part time at Minnesota Vacuum & Sewing. “And I thought: Well, this is kind of fun.”

For the past eight years, Davidson has eaten almost every weekday at the restaurant. And every time he went to Bridgeman’s from May 2011 to May 2012, Davidson secretly paid for someone else’s breakfast.

He hasn’t been able to break the habit.

“I still do it,” he said. “I just don’t do it on a multi-binge.”

Davidson didn’t seek the media attention – the suggestion for this story came from another Bridgeman’s customer. Once approached, though, he didn’t hide from the publicity.

He was dining alone on Thursday, although in a sense he seemed to be with everyone in the restaurant.

“It’s time for another clue, Dean,” said Arlene Williams, 79, who was having coffee with her sister-in-law, Sandy Johnson, 67, in a booth across the aisle from Davidson.

Williams was referring to another of Davidson’s traditions. Each day he comes to Bridgeman’s equipped with a trivia question, sometimes bestowing a prize on the first to answer it. The question quickly makes the rounds of the tables and booths.

Cowboys, and especially the Lone Ranger, are a theme with Davidson. When he started buying other’s meals, he got Lone Ranger baseball cards, put them in collectors’ sleeves and signed “The Lone Ranger” on the back. The waitress would deliver the card to the table that was receiving the free meal.

“I’d slip them in with their meal with the idea that nobody is supposed to know who I am,” Davidson said. “I have a fun time watching them look around, stretch their necks, trying to figure out who it is.”

But Bridgeman’s is a restaurant that attracts regulars, and his cover largely has been blown. On Thursday, he brought two Lone Ranger cards with the words “Have a hot fudge sundae on me” on the back. He went through the motions of having a waitress deliver the cards and the sundaes to Williams and Johnson, but they weren’t fooled.

“Thank you, Dean,” they said, amid grandmotherly giggles.

Davidson, who is divorced and has two grown children, has taken his giving beyond Bridgeman’s, to the CHUM shelter, to nursing homes, even to the sidewalks outside of bars. He keeps track of his giving, but he declined to reveal the total amount.

Davidson noted that he has received gifts in return, especially from the Bridgeman’s staff. One waitress brings him books, and another gives him fresh vegetables in season. At times, waitresses have paid for his meals.

But he receives the most simply from the act of giving, Davidson said.

“It makes me feel better than it makes the people feel, I’m sure,” he said. “I get a big kick out of it, actually.”