Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Erby Walker, 70, Longtime Varsity Counterman

ATLANTA - Erby Walker almost got fired when he started at the Varsity in 1952. The owner, Frank Gordy, didn't like the way he let some mustard stray from the hot dogs to the buns. But he relented and gave his new employee another chance.

Good thing. Walker went on to become the high priest of the hot dog, working the counter at the venerable North Avenue drive-in for decades. Generations of hungry Atlantans heard him bark out, "What'll ya have? What'll ya have?"

Erby died of cardiac arrest Monday at Grady Memorial Hospital. His youngest daughter, Anissa Thompson, said he had been hospitalized since falling down a flight of stairs last week and breaking several bones. "The Varsity has been sending lots of food to the house," Thompson said. Walker didn't coin the Varsity's trademark phrase, but he certainly put the mustard on it. "Nobody said it better than Erby," said Nancy Simms, the restaurant's CEO. "He was the king of 'What'll ya have?' "

Over the years, Walker served chili dogs and onion rings to celebrities from Muhammad Ali to Burt Reynolds to Bill Clinton. In the process, his distinctive patter and short-order slang made him a celebrity in a red-paper hat. He didn't just call out for hot dogs to go; they were "two-dogs-a-walkin'." Walker's status was recognized in 2003 when the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau inducted him into its Hospitality Hall of Fame.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin issued a statement Tuesday, praising Walker as "an iconic figure and familiar voice at the Varsity for over 50 years."

"On an average day, Walker probably waited on more than 1,000 customers," said his supervisor, Elton 'Blue' Drayton. "And when he worked on Georgia Tech football Saturdays, Walker served perhaps as many as 5,000."

Started at age 15

Country deejay Rhubarb Jones took the death hard. "This news has made me cry for the first time in a long time," he wrote in a e-mail to the Varsity. "He is as much a part of the city's history as Margaret Mitchell, Delta Air Lines and Coco-Cola."

Walker was born in rural Georgia but grew up in Atlanta. He started at the Varsity when he was 15, earning $21 a week sweeping up, and soon graduated to the kitchen.

When the drive-in desegregated in 1964, he assumed his position at the counter, the first black man to work out front. One black customer was so taken aback by the sight of one of her own taking money, he later recalled, that she refused to hand hers over to him.

Walker was known for his ability to recite the menu, make instant calculations in his head and keep customers laughing as he kept the line moving. And he did keep the line moving; he sometimes sent people to the back of the queue if they weren't ready to order.

"I saw a man talking to himself one day," Simms remembered, "and I asked him, 'Can I help you?' And he said he was practicing his order. 'That man sent me to the back of the line. I want to get it right this time.' "

Walker eventually became one of Frank Gordy's favorite employees. The late owner sent the counterman and his family on two expenses-paid trips to Disney World.

"He worked so hard," Walker's youngest daughter said. "He told us:'It doesn't matter what you do in life. If you're a trash man, be the best trash man you can be.' "

Never really retired

Walker announced his retirement in 2003, but it didn't stick. He returned three months later, asking for his old job. He worked as recently as last week, on the day before he fell down the stairs at his home in southwest Atlanta.

He had suffered health problems for years, starting with a heart attack in 1990. At the time, he told the AJC, he had been eating a dozen Varsity hot dogs a day. "My doctor told me, 'You've got to stop eating hot dogs.' I said, 'What are you trying to do, kill me now?' "

Walker is survived by 10 children, 19 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. His wife of 41 years, Maggie Walker, died in 1999.

Herschel Thornton Mortuary is handling the arrangements, with a visitation at 7 p.m. Thursday at the funeral home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The funeral service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday at St. Paul AME Church on Pryor Road.

Varsity food will be served afterward, naturally.

Rest In Peace, Erby.


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