MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- Do you remember the Thanksgiving story about a Mesa grandma and teenage boy accidentally exchanging texts that led to their two families celebrating the holiday together for years to come? The grandma is Wanda Dench. She and her husband, Lonnie Dench, turned the 2016 text mishap into a new Thanksgiving tradition.

But sadly, we learned that Lonnie Dench recently passed away from coronavirus.

For four years now, the couple has opened their home and their hearts to Jamal Hinton and his girlfriend Mikaela, plus their families, on Thanksgiving, after the accidental text Wanda sent to Hinton that was meant for her real grandson several years ago.

[ORIGINAL STORY: Wrong number brings strangers together for Thanksgiving]

It all started in November of 2016, when Jamal Hinton, a high school senior, got a text from a number he didn’t know, with a message inviting him for Thanksgiving dinner. That text was from Wanda Dench, who had intended the message to go to her grandson. But, she had the wrong number, and accidentally sent the message to Hinton instead. "I said, basically, 'Thanksgiving my house, this date, this time, let me know if you're going to come,'" Dench told us.

A short time after sending the message, she got a reply from Hinton. "I got a text asking 'who is this?' and I said, 'it's Grandma!'"

At that point in the conversation, Hinton was confused, because he didn't recognize the number! So to confirm it was actually his grandma he made a request. "I asked for a picture, and she sent a picture, and I sent one back so she can confirm that I'm not her grandson, and it went from there," Hinton said at the time.

When Dench gt the request, she admitted it seemed a bit strange. But, she decided to send a selfie anyway. Them she got a humorous reply. "I got a text back from somebody I don't know who said,' You're not my grandma, but can I still have a plate?'" Dench told us at the time.

Dench said after she recovered from the embarrassment of sending a selfie to a complete stranger, she decided she should respond. "I just went with my gut and said, 'Sure, Grandmas feed everybody,'" Dench said.

Two days after the text was sent, Hinton met Dench in person and she officially invited him and his family to their Thanksgiving dinner. Hinton happily accepted, and thus began a new tradition.

Each Thanksgiving since then, the unlikely pair would gather together with friends and family.The holiday would begin with Lonnie giving a prayer, followed by food, and most importantly, just a lot of fun. But now, tragedy has struck Dench's family with the death of Lonnie to COVID-19.

Strangers connected by wrong text message celebrate 3rd Thanksgiving together in Mesa

Just a few weeks ago, on March 10, Arizona's Family reporter, Briana Whitney, received a check-in text message from Lonnie. In it, Lonnie talked about how he was delivering water to the grocery stores at night, and about how seeing pictures from the past Thanksgivings made him smile during a time of panic for so many.

Mesa grandma who mistakenly invited teen to Thanksgiving loses husband to COVID-19

But, he had no idea he would come down with COVID-19 just weeks later. The virus would ultimately take his life.

Wanda sent Arizona’s Family these words, remembering her husband:

“He had the truest heart of love, like no other. He did so many acts of kindness that no one ever heard about. He was my hero. And I’m a better person because of him.”

She said Lonnie was the first to greet everyone on Thanksgiving and the last to say goodbye. Now, he leaves behind a community that’s thankful to have been even a small part of his Thanksgiving traditions. He was a reminder in their world about what giving thanks is all about.


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