The mounted warthog, gazelle, alligator, shark — game and fish of nearly all types — are visible evidence in Tonanzio's of its owner's passion. Political and entertainment notables from around the world — including Nikita Khrushchev, the Four Tops and the Platters — have enjoyed a meal in the restaurant's safari atmosphere.
But the avid hunter and fisherman, who has traveled the world to indulge that desire, has an even greater passion.
"My personal mission is that people have Jesus in their hearts," Tom Dawson declared. He has been using his restaurant in Guthrie (near New Bloomfield) to share the gospel in creative ways for 46 years.
Until three years ago, he took at least one exotic hunting or fishing trip each year and has visited shrines and houses of worship of nearly every religion. He and the family members who accompanied him always included some type of humanitarian effort along with the fun, he said.
But he wants everyone to experience the "charmed" and "abundant" life he has lived. He pointed to Will Rogers — American cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, social commentator and motion picture actor — who claimed to have never met a man he didn't like. "I've never met a man who I didn't want to see go to heaven," Dawson said. He has been ordained as a Southern Baptist, an American Baptist and an interdenominational minister.
In the restaurant business for 56 years, he started as a 15-year-old creating and selling sandwiches at a Guthrie grocery store. His customers began to recognize his compassion as his faith and his business grew.
Dawson decided he didn't need to become a full-time preacher to help people find the Lord. Instead, he believes God has allowed him to become a chaplain to the people who flock to Tonanzio's and to the hunting and fishing community.
"I use the restaurant as a sort of lightening rod…," he explained, and his mailing list includes a lot of folks who don't have a church home.
Customer requests have often led to ministry. After he was asked to baptize a child who had made a profession of faith, Dawson set up a small worship area along the pond near the restaurant and holds baptismal services several times each year. "We baptize whenever there's a need," he said.
In the 1990s, he began officiating weddings after a couple came in who weren't married. But they felt they were married in God's sight, Dawson explained, because "a friend had said words over them. That got me thinking that I should do it."
Three major life events re-emphasized God's call to use his business for others, he said. He faced an Internal Revenue Service audit in the 1980s and a 1994 fire that nearly destroyed his business. After each incident he started over, recommitting himself to find ways to minister.
Then three years ago, he faced a health challenge. His kidneys had shriveled up and would no longer function. Immediately, he was placed on dialysis to await a kidney transplant. As Dawson's health continued to deteriorate, his wife donated a kidney, even though it did not match.
Dawson attended Tower Grove Baptist Church while in St. Louis for recovery and follow-up at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "I felt the Lord was leading me to do a crusade," he said. "I'm still not afraid to go [to heaven]. But if [God] wants me to stay, I'm going to do as much as I can [for him]."
Feeling strongly that the event should be multinational and interdenominational, he had hoped to hold the event in the St. Louis area.
Dawson decided to establish the Sportsman's Research and Cultural Arts Foundation to promote hunting and conservation and performing and visual arts. His restaurant complex, which includes limited lodging, houses the Sportsman's Theatre and can seat up to 700 people.
When plans would not come together to hold a crusade in the St. Louis area, Dawson decided to use his venue and chose Easter weekend for the event. "I've always tried to help fill the pews on Easter," he said. "I thought it could get people prepped up just before Easter."
He believes that people can make a profession of faith anywhere, but that the church is the best place in which to grow. That's why he has worked with area churches and has drawn several ministers and singers to participate.
"When people find Jesus, they need to grow…and they can do that in the church," he said. "It's up to the churches…that's why I wanted to get the churches involved."
Oak Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, an African-American congregation near Guthrie with Marion Mitchell as pastor, is co-hosting the event, set for Thursday-Saturday, April 5-7. So far, 12 churches, including Korean and Hispanic participants, from around the area have committed to the effort.
The crusade will feature a Passover meal on Thursday and a drama about the crucifixion on Friday. Saturday's service will acknowledge the confusion that followed Jesus' death and lead to the "hallelujah" of the resurrection, Dawson said.
He hopes the event will encourage attendees to go to the church of their choice on Easter Sunday.
He also hopes that musicians and other participants will "see how the Lord wants to use them."