Lake Norman Magazine

A warm welcome

The Welcome Home Veterans Living Military Museum at Richard´s Coffee Shop.
The Welcome Home Veterans Living Military Museum at Richard´s Coffee Shop. Laura Mueller

It’s officially known as the Welcome Home Veterans Living Military Museum at Richard’s Coffee Shop, but affectionately called Richard’s Coffee Shop. And John Hedley has witnessed first-hand the Mooresville café’s effect on visiting veterans. “A man walked through the doors and dropped to his knees,” says Hedley, a Vietnam veteran himself and now president of the Welcome Home Veterans Board affiliated with the coffee shop. “Standing inside was a friend he hadn’t seen since the two hunched together in a foxhole in Vietnam. Watching out for each other in a foxhole – you don’t get any closer than that.” Hedley also recalls another Vietnam veteran who visited twice, never speaking a word. “He just stood against the wall, a surly look on his face, taking it all in,” Hedley explains. One Saturday – the day people meet at Richard’s for bluegrass and gospel music – the veteran showed up, guitar in hand, and proceeded to join in. “His daughter came with him that day and tears streamed down her face,” says Hedley. “She knew her father had returned from whatever dark place he had been for so long.” The faces and wars are different. Visiting veterans have fought in World War II through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. But the shared experiences and camaraderie bring veterans from across the country to Richard’s Coffee Shop. What opened in 1996 as a place to grab a cup of Joe has evolved into a living military museum and much more. The coffee shop’s impact has grown, but the space hasn’t. Recognizing the potential they have to serve veterans – as well as the Lake Norman community – a group closely connected to the coffee shop wants to expand Richard’s, both in size and outreach. They’ve identified a space on Mooresville’s Main Street four times larger than the current location where they can achieve their goals. And public sentiment to make it happen is growing. The Welcome Home Veterans Board is comprised of five veterans committed to preserving the plans that original coffee shop owner, Richard Warren, unintentionally set in motion. In 2009, Warren died in of complications from exposure to Agent Orange. A few months before his death, he gathered people together and said he wanted the coffee shop and its commitment to veterans to continue after his death. From this conversation, The Welcome Home Veterans nonprofit organization was formed. ‘It was just supposed to be a coffee shop’When Warren and his wife Pat opened Pat’s Gourmet Coffee Shop 15 years ago in downtown Mooresville, they didn’t envision the patriotic direction their small business would take. “It was just supposed to be a coffee shop,” explains Hedley. But Warren, a U.S. Army Vietnam combat pilot, made a point of offering the traditional veterans greeting of “Welcome Home” to all veterans who walked through the door. Over time, word spread about this therapeutic port where veterans gathered with others who understood their experiences firsthand. They brought mementos, too: medals, newspaper clippings, pictures, uniforms and artillery. The keepsakes decorated the coffee shop’s walls, and a living museum was born. “Everything on the walls has a personal, emotional connection because it tells the story of someone who’s been here,” says Hedley. Warren began serving veterans free coffee every Thursday. First-time veteran visitors sign Richard’s Book of Honor and receive a red, white and blue beaded key chain. People started meeting at Richard’s every Saturday with guitars and banjos in hand for bluegrass jam sessions. School-aged children came to see the displayed mementos, often having the chance to talk directly with the person to whom a medal was awarded or a newspaper article hanging on the wall was about. In 2009, Our State magazine called Richard’s “the most patriotic coffee-shop in America.” From its humble beginnings, the unassuming coffee shop became the only non-profit coffee shop and living military museum in the country. ‘It’s like it’s meant to be’The Welcome Home Veterans Board’s first step in expanding the museum was to identify a suitable space. A former art gallery at 165 Main St. was the perfect spot. “The new location sits across the street from the original Pat’s Gourmet Coffee Shop,” says Hedley. “We’re right back where Richard started; it’s like it’s meant to be.” (Pat’s Gourmet Coffee Shop closed in 2009 when a lease discrepancy occurred, and re-opened as Richard’s Coffee Shop at its current location). The space has more room for displaying military artifacts. There’s a conference room for presentations and field trips that museum representatives hope to coordinate with local schools. A restaurant also used to occupy the space, so there’s a kitchen to continue making coffee and pastries. “No matter how much we grow or what we grow into, this will first and foremost be a therapeutic gathering place for veterans,” Hedley says. “We’ll never lose that aspect of Richard’s Coffee Shop.” In addition to welcoming more guests, the coffee shop’s new location will serve as a platform for increased community outreach, specifically with children. “Ask any veteran, regardless of where they served, and they’ll tell you about helping children,” offers Hedley. “Anyone who has served overseas can talk about doing whatever they could to help kids, from giving treats to risking their own lives to save a child.”With that backdrop in mind, the coffee shop recently formed a partnership with Solace for the Children, a Mooresville-based organization providing medical and dental care to Afghanistan children who come to the U.S. for medical treatment. Welcome Home Veterans representatives also hope to form mentorship opportunities with residents at Barium Springs Home for Children, which helps abused and neglected kids.‘It makes a veteran feel good when citizens say thanks’Funding is the critical piece to relocating Richard’s Coffee Shop. From grassroots fundraisers to corporate involvement, the community has responded in kind, helping to raise $100,000 of the estimated $450,000 needed to purchase and renovate the 165 Main St. property. Bojangles’, the Charlotte-based restaurant chain, recently pledged its support. The popular eatery is featuring the Welcome Home Veterans Living History Museum at Richard’s Coffee Shop on its food tray paper liners. The placemats show a picture of coffee shop regular Herb Knox, a World War II veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. The placemats also explain the museum’s mission and fundraising effort to purchase a larger space. Approximately 3,000 placemats were delivered to 20 restaurants throughout the Lake Norman and Charlotte region. Bojangles’ CEO Randy Kibler applauded the group’s initiative. “When I met John (Hedley) at Richard’s Coffee Shop, I was just amazed at what (the Welcome Home Veterans Board) was doing,” Kibler says. “When you think of all that veterans do for our country and the challenges they face when coming home this is a very passionate group and we wanted to help them get exposure for their efforts.” Hedley says the way people are embracing the initiative is heartwarming. “With the new space, veterans will have more opportunities to connect with the community and continue to serve as they did in uniform,” he says. “It certainly makes a veteran feel good when citizens say thanks for their service by participating in this cause.” Want to go?Welcome Home Veterans Museum at Richard’s Coffee Shop

128 S. Main St., Mooresville