This same thing happened a few years ago, and a few years before that.
In fact, every few years, 82-year-old Willie James says he’s ready to hang up his apron and retire from South 21 Drive-In Restaurant. But so far, his retirements haven’t lasted very long.
“I just keep on wanting to come back to work,” Willie told us during a break from his bustling lunch shift.
In 1955, Willie had just returned from serving in the Korean Conflict with the US Army. He needed a job. He found one at the South 21 Drive-In on South Boulevard.
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His first day he was an hour late.
But 62 years later, no one seems to remember that but him. Since then, he’s been running orders to drive-in customers just as fast as his legs will carry him. He’s delivered just as many smiles as he has meals.
The only thing different - he’s moved to the South 21 on Independence Boulevard. But there, his face is even more of a fixture than the rusty neon sign that’s been there since the place opened.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 4-years-old and he remembers me from then. He’s just one of a kind,” said South 21 customer Ginny Ball.
While the staple of the store has threatened to leave before, he says this time that he’s sure.
“My shoulder’s getting arthritis in it and my knees hurt sometimes. I’m 82-years-old and sometimes I don’t want to get out of the bed,” Willie said, which after working for more than 62 years in the same job is well within his rights to enjoy.
But his boss, who was born well after Willie started working at South 21, says she doesn’t believe it.
“I feel like this place would not be the same if Willie didn’t come in,” said South 21 owner Maria Housiadas, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Willie says his last day is July 1. But again, before any loyal customers get teary-eyed over his retirement, we’ll have to wait and see if he can really stay away from the place he loves so much.
“They’ve been very good to me here,” Willie said with a smile.