The following is an excerpt from Al Povall’s book, “A Time Remembered, Ole Miss 1945-1970)
BY KAY KIAMIE CHURCHILL
My dad was born July 25, 1919, in White Castle, Louisiana, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
His parents came from Lebanon and were Roman Catholics. He was one of eight children, and although she was dying of cancer, his mother lived until he graduated from high school with honors. He was awarded a scholarship to LSU but they were so poor that he didn’t have any money for living expenses so he had to turn it down. After his mother passed away, his older sister had married and moved to Clarksdale, so she brought the whole family to Clarksdale. Daddy’s six brothers migrated to New York and New Jersey and he and his two sisters, the older and younger sisters, stayed in Clarksdale and started Deacon’s Restaurant. My mother and dad met on Leflore Avenue in Clarksdale. She lived at one end and he was living with his sister at the other end. They started dating some. Her parents were Italian immigrants who had come as a young married couple – it was an arranged marriage – on a ship through Ellis Island. To pay for their passage, once they got through Ellis Island into the country, my maternal grandfather and grandmother had to pay for their passage by coming to Shelby, Mississippi and sharecropping, or working the land, until they paid what they owed. My mother was born there in Shelby. Her name was Mary Elizabeth Noe. Her father was A. Noe. The A stood for Archimedes and his wife was Teresa Rossetti. My parents got married February 7, 1941 and I was born September 18, 1942, which was not too long after Pearl Harbor. en Daddy went into the Navy. After the war ended he was discharged in Bremerton, Washington, then made his way back to Clarksdale, where he had sent us when the war was over.
My dad bought this little cafe – Alex’s Cafe – on the square in Batesville, down from the Elementary School. Then he began driving back and forth to Oxford, looking at property on West Jackson Avenue. Mr. Jack Dunlap, who owned Southside Chevrolet in Batesville and was the primary stockholder in Batesville Security Bank, had coffee with my dad every morning. Daddy was talking about opening a restaurant in Oxford but that he didn’t have any money and couldn’t get a loan here in Oxford. Mr. Dunlap told the president of Batesville Security Bank to let Alex have what he needed to build his building in Oxford.
We opened KiamIe’s Restaurant and Drive-In on Thursday before the weekend of Home- coming in 1952. The Homecoming game was between Ole Miss and LSU. (Ole Miss won 28-0) I was ten years old. May Helen, who had been with us in Batesville, came over to Oxford with us. She was in high school and had been coming afternoons when she got out of school to wash dishes. Her mother, Ella Quay, had been cooking for us. Daddy and Ella and May Helen came over from Batesville together. Eventually, Ella Quay migrated to the Sigma Nu House and May Helen became the main cook for the restaurant. We had such a terri c business. ere was no competition because there was nothing out there. We weren’t even in the city limits for years.
We served everything: T-bone steaks and ribeyes; pizza, shrimp cocktails, seafood, vegetables and all of the meats, salads and pies – apple and peach turnovers with ice cream. And then chili burgers. In one of the Ole Miss annuals I came across a picture of my dad at the register, smiling, and it said “The J. Paul Getty of chili burgers.” I didn’t know they had that in the annual. I said, “Whoo, that’s nice. You succeeded, Dad.”
A Louisiana kid came to Mississippi and made his luck. He always said, “There’s no such thing as good luck; you have to make your luck.” Dad said, “We’ve got a chance to do it and we’re going for it.” You couldn’t argue with him; you just followed the leader. I assume he invented the chili burger. I had never had chili in my life. We stayed open from 9 AM to 2 AM. There was such a demand and we couldn’t turn it down and be closed except back in those days when you had your finals in December, you had a two-week break until after New Year’s so that was when we could relax and enjoy the holidays.
The menu pretty much stayed the same. My dad did realize that on football weekends we couldn’t handle an entire menu so he worked up like a roast beef with creamed potatoes and maybe a salad. He had about three main dishes for football weekends so we could serve pretty quickly and didn’t tie up the two grills. Otherwise, we operated off the regular menu. May Helen was the main cook and there were two others. Then he had a couple of waitresses. And I helped out, as did my mother, who ordered all of the food from the wholesalers. She was in charge of that and did a beautiful job.
We couldn’t make chili fast enough. I asked May Helen, “Don’t you think we ought to spice up the chili recipe and add meat and not so many beans?” She said,“We don’t need it because we can’t keep up now. We’re selling it so fast, I need a little help in there.” When the students would break after the parties on Friday and Saturday nights they were so hungry they would have eaten anything to have some food in their tummies. From about twelve o’clock to about three we were serving hamburgers and cheeseburgers and barbecue and chili and fries with gravy and cheese and onion rings that were homemade by May Helen. So it was really a madhouse but we wanted them to feel like they were home, wanted them to have a good time and be a home away from home. We knew most of them by name and May Helen was instrumental because she was in charge of the kitchen. One of the other cooks was Magnolia Isom.
They did their jobs and were always prepared. We had plate lunches in those days, too, and still had all of the sandwiches. I used to type the luncheon menu every day because it changed daily. We had about three cars going on delivery, which was really heavy, and it was hard taking care of the inside and the delivery orders at the same time. There was a 25-cent delivery charge. After Vietnam was coming into play big-time, there were some Ole Miss students who had signed up with the Greenwood National Guard, and I think that maybe they thought they wouldn’t be called up being in Greenwood, but the first unit activated in Mississippi by President Johnson was the Greenwood unit and he sent them straight to Vietnam and the DMZ. So one day Dad got a letter and brought it from the Post Office and said, “Kay, come look at this.” It was a letter from all of these Ole Miss students in the unit asking for delivery to the DMZ. Dr. Bo Marsalus was the first one to sign and there must have been eight or nine of them.
“Dear Mr. Kiamie, We hope your delivery charge of 25 cents still holds up over here in Vietnam,and here’s our order.” They ordered hamburgers and cheeseburgers and barbecues and chili and all of this and it was just fantastic. We were all in awe. You could tell they were in good spirits. So he said, “I’m going to dictate a letter to their parents and you send a copy of this letter and my letter and tell them that their son is fine, that they’re invited to come back for a free meal, that they’re thinking of home and that God willing, all of them are going to come home safely. To our knowledge, they did. I don’t know if any of them ever came back for free meals but I think the parents were really happy to hear that. I had looked through the student directory for the home addresses, so I sent Dad’s letter and a copy of their letter. We hated for them to be over there but to our knowledge, they all came home fine.
I think we had a limit on checks of $25 in the beginning and then maybe for some, a little more. When former Governor Haley Barbour was in school, he would run short before his monthly check came from home. Daddy would let certain people come out and sign a check and hold it until they could pick it up when they got their check from home. When Governor Barbour came to Tupelo to a reception at the BancorpSouth Building after he was elected we went to his reception. We were on the front row – we wanted to make sure he and Marcia saw us – and he came directly to me and I was so pleased. I was so happy to see him, I had tears in my eyes. We shook hands and he said, “Kay, if it wasn’t for your daddy I would have never gotten through Ole Miss.” I said, “I know. I know. I wish he were here to see you cause we think you’ll be one of the best governors Mississippi ever had. If I get into trouble I better do it now, because I know the Governor of Mississippi and he sure could help me.”
I served Archie the afternoon after he got his arm broken. He had it in a cast and he was so sad. That cost him the Heisman trophy. He was down in the dumps. I asked him what he wanted to eat and he told me. I told him it was on the house. I said, “I sure am sorry. All of us are sorry.” Ole Miss got permission to put a cast on his arm and let him play. We went to the LSU game in Baton Rouge and if they beat us they were going to the Orange Bowl. Archie played his heart out. He was absolutely awesome. They beat us and they threw oranges on the field.
My father passed away from a severe stroke in August 1990. He had a lighter stroke a few months earlier and was supposed to go back to Memphis for an MRI test. He didn’t want to go and his blood pressure shot up. Daddy had never been sick, had never been in a hospital. I think the light stroke affected his brain. He had the second stroke here and the ambulance took him to the hospital in Memphis where he died.
I wouldn’t trade my memories for anything in the world. We have known the cream of the crop – senators, congressmen, people who were successful in big business – and we knew all of them on a first-name basis. The Lord has blessed us so abundantly. I knew down deep that I was meant to stay here. This is where I wanted to be, where I wanted to live and rear my children and educate them. And I’ve done that.