Sunday, March 31, 2019

Tracking the elusive Skeen Burger

Back in January, my latest assignment for the recently-published April issue of Davidson Living Magazine was to do a story on Skeen Burgers, the hamburger that made Thomasville famous.

Well, other than furniture, that is. And football. Thomasville's pretty famous for furniture and prep football state titles, you know.

But the assignment was quickly turning into a fool's errand. Visits to several Thomasville restaurants were turning up zilch. Not only were the local restaurants not serving Skeen Burgers, most of them hadn't even heard of Skeen Burgers.

Whaa...?? You mean the city's iconic hamburger, famously made with applesauce and Ritz crackers, was a fading memory?

Uh-oh. The story was going nowhere. I went back to The Dispatch, told my editor of my predicament, and what should we do? We decided to go ahead and do the story about something that no longer exists. Of course we did.

Getting the Skeen Burger story was a ton of fun...
 So it was back to Thomasville. My first stop was the S&S Grill, which used to be the Morning Glory in a previous life. The Morning Glory was Dewey Skeen's restaurant, which he built in 1947 in the furniture factory district and where he served steak burgers that he never named Skeen Burgers. I guess somebody else must have called them that and the name stuck.

I talked to the current owner of the S&S, Lisa "Sis" King, who has operated the restaurant for 20 years and knew the story of the Skeen Burger inside out. But she wasn't going to put the burger on her menu. She doubted the veracity of the applesauce-and-Ritz cracker recipe, chalking it up to rumor and local legend. And besides, she ultimately didn't want to be compared with something that was larger than life, which she clearly knew would happen.

Then it was off to the Thomasville Chamber of Commerce, where president Keith Tobin (who I had known years previously when he was an educator and coach and I was writing sports for The Dispatch) gave me a good quote about Skeen Burgers (also doubting the applesauce bit) and I was nearly ready to write a nice little 700-word story.

I also checked with Google, which burped up a couple of stories about Skeen Burgers in the 1970s (long after Dewey sold his business in 1966). I gleaned what pertinent information I could from those stories, and started writing.

Here's where the chase really gets good:

I wanted to get a picture of Dewey to give the story some depth, but there was nothing on the Internet, believe it or not. So I went to the Davidson County Museum, thinking maybe they had something from legendary Lexington photographer H. Lee Waters on file, but there was nothing there. So the museum directed me to Tonya Hensley of the genealogy department of the Lexington branch of the Davidson County library.

Dewey Skeen
 Tonya couldn't find a picture, but she found an excerpt written by former Thomasville Times editor Wint Capel for his 1991 book "A Recent History of Thomasville," where Skeen pretty much said his secret ingredient was using high quality meat and a little seasoning. Nothing about applesauce.

I contacted the Thomasville C of C again, asking them if they knew where I could get a picture of Dewey. They pointed me to P&G Antiques on Main Street in Thomasville because they thought the store might have a picture of Dewey I could use.

So Kim and I walked into P&G one Saturday, where we were greeted by co-owner Danny Ward. What? I knew Danny for years when he was a coach and athletic director at East Davidson. What's going on here? Between Keith and Danny, I was crossing paths with old friends and acquaintances once again. I told Danny what I was doing, and he began a search for a picture. He couldn't find one either, but he did have another potential contact for me: Vickie Leonard, who once was a waitress at Morning Glory. My radar array automatically engaged. A day or two later, Danny gave me Vickie's phone number, I made the call, and the story got a little longer.

Vickie, who was a waitress at Morning Glory for 10 years before opening her own restaurant with her husband, Mike, told me the applesauce and Ritz crackers story was a myth. I was noticing a serious trend here.

But still no picture of Dewey.

My last hope was the Thomasville branch of the county library, where I met Priscilla Oldaker in the genealogy department. I told her what I needed and Priscilla immediately went into I-can-do-this mode. She checked She checked the census. She found that Dewey had three children and she gave me their names: Leon, June and Charlesanna.

I went home and turned on my Google machine again. Leon and Jean had passed on after each lived long lives into their 90s, but Charlesanna, 86, was still around and living in Jamestown. I found her phone number, and gave it to Dispatch photographer Donnie Roberts, who made the call and set up the interview. A few days later, we were at her house for a photo shoot. She had five or six pictures of her father for us, and she emphatically gave me a little more information for the story (now up to 1,440 words): there was never any applesauce in Dewey's recipe.

I mention all of this because when a story comes together – when all the pieces mesh like magic – it's a wonderful feeling. But the process requires a lot of help, too. So big thank yous all around to Keith Tobin, Tonya Hensley, Sis King, Vickie Leonard, Danny Ward, Priscilla Oldaker and Charlesanna Skeen Marsh. You made this one of the most fun assignments I ever had in my 40-plus years of journalism.

•   •   • 

What do I think about the supposedly secret Skeen Burger recipe?

There are too many key people on the inside of this story who refute the notion that Dewey Skeen ever put applesauce and Ritz crackers in his hamburger mix. So if you think you have the secret recipe, you probably don't.

I never had a Skeen Burger made by Dewey. I came to North Carolina in 1976, 10 years after he sold his business. And Dewey died in 1992 at the age of 91, apparently having never written down the ingredients of his burger mix to pass on for posterity.

But what I think he did was use a high quality meat that he ground into hamburger and then seasoned with a dash of onion salt or garlic salt or Worcestershire sauce or something like that. His daughter, Charlesanna, said he personally liked applesauce, which he bought in bulk, stored at the Morning Glory, and ate out of the jar when he was hungry. Maybe somebody, perhaps a customer, spied the cartons of applesauce on the shelves, made a mental connection, and asked him how he made his hamburger mix. And maybe Dewey was clever enough to foster the growing "secret recipe" rumor because it was good for business.

I think Dewey was a pretty smart guy.

•   •   •

And one more thing about Dewey:

His humble little hamburger joint was successful enough to put his three children through college. The Skeen family moved to Thomasville in 1930 after previously living in Denton, and at times Dewey was a barber and then a restaurateur, running the Snow White Restaurant for several years before building and opening the Morning Glory in 1947.

But the Morning Glory was his gold mine. So maybe it's no surprise that Dewey's son, Leon, was a graduate of Thomasville High School, and then went on to N.C. State, where he majored in engineering. He worked for the Monsanto company in St. Louis before retiring and returning to High Point. He later became an adjunct professor at A&T University.

Dewey and Nona's first child, June, ended up going to Catawba College, and later received a Master's Degree from UNC Greensboro. She was a teacher at Page High School in Greensboro for 26 years before retiring.

And youngest daughter Charlesanna graduated from Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, majoring in furniture design, ultimately spending 40 years in the interior design business.

All this because of a hamburger that may or may not have had applesauce in it. I love this story. It's an American original. It's the great American success story.

It's a story for all of us.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Opening Day approaches

Kim went to get the mail from the front porch Saturday afternoon.

Then she walked into the den, underhanded the curled up magazine to me and said, "Your boys are on the cover."

Huh? I had no idea what she was talking about. I was half-heartedly watching an NCAA tournament basketball game at the time between two teams I could not give a flip about, so I unfolded the magazine.

There they were: four Philadelphia Phillies, gracing the cover of the baseball preview issue of my bi-monthly Sports Illustrated. I must have been smiling hard because Rhys Hoskins, Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola and J.T. Realmuto were smiling back at me, like cats that each had a canary for dessert.

The only time I smile that big when I get my SI is when the swimsuit issue arrives.

And usually, when something is plastered on the cover of a magazine, it means there's a big feature story inside. So I paged through, waiting to see a 10-page piece on the up-and-coming Phillies.

But I couldn't find it. What I got instead was a feature on Houston's Alex Bergman. What? He wasn't even on the cover.

The piece on the Phillies turned out to be a one-page scouting report about the team, giving little snippets here and there about strengths and weaknesses. One page? Really? I thought that was odd, given that Sports Illustrated has predicted the Phillies to win the National League pennant this year before losing to the Astros in the World Series.

Wait. Slow down, Bucky.

I've been a Phillies fan since 1964, which was the year we moved back down to Pennsylvania after five years in New England so that Dad could go to Moravian Theological Seminary to become a minister. I was 13 years old and immediately switched my allegiance from Yankees to Phillies because Philadelphia was now just 60 miles away.

But it's been a difficult slog. That very year, 1964, was the year of the great collapse when the Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 games remaining. Ouch. That one still hurts. Since then, the Phillies have appeared in four World Series (about one every 15 years since 1964), winning one in 1980 and another in 2008. So-so.

Phillies fans have been long suffering, so signing Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract was something new. Philadelphia traditionally doesn't throw big money at players, but this acquisition signaled a major turn in team philosophy. In addition to Harper, the Phillies also have picked up shortstop Jean Seugura from Seattle, catcher Realmuto from Florida, and outfielder Andrew McCutchen from Pittsburgh during the off season.

And while the Phillies are now instant contenders, I'm not ready to put them in the World Series. Not yet. Let's get a year in to let the chemistry mix, bubble and simmer. We'll see.

In the meantime, look for pitching rich Los Angeles to win the NL pennant, while Houston wins the AL title. This time, I'm giving the nod to the Dodgers to win the World Series.

But I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong.

•   •   •

On a side note, I have no idea what a Phillie is, even though I've been a fan for 55 years. As far as I know, the Philadelphia team nickname is the only inanimate (and unknown) object in sports. Ever.

I know that you can buy cigars called Phillies blunts (going back to 1910), with the brand name in red and in baseball-type block letters. It leads you to believe there is an affiliation with the baseball team, but there's not. They're more closely related to Hav-A-Tampa.

A filly, of course, is a female horse four years old or younger, but that has nothing to do with baseball. Or Philadelphia, for that matter.

I guess they could be called the Hoagies. Nah.

The best that I've come up with is that a professional baseball team called the Philadelphia Quakers played there in 1883. The following year, they changed their name to the Philadelphia Philadelphias (Go figure). Here's the key: "Philly" was/is a contraction for the city, while a "Phillie" was a person from Philadelphia.

By 1884, the team was referred to by sports writers as the Phillies – or residents of Philadelphia. The name stuck, more or less.

And now, except for a two-year hiatus in 1944-45, when they were oddly named the Blue Jays for no apparent reason (blame it on World War II), "Phillies" is now the longest running sustained nickname by any one team in professional sports.

•   •   •

Opening Day is Wednesday, March 28, for most teams. It's the earliest Opening Day ever. Bring earmuffs.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Buy degrees

I remember taking my SAT exams.

It still gives me nightmares.

I mean, I wasn't ever an exceptional student and I never tested well. School, as far back as I can remember, was a social gathering where I accidentally learned a few things, maybe through proximity and osmosis more than anything else.

Some stuff even today escapes me. I was never comfortable with numbers, so anything mathematical was foreign to me, and still is. To this day, I have no clue why they ("They" being the system) tried to teach me algebra, armed for numerical combat as I was with a protractor and slide rule (Wait, that's geometry. Another stumbling block). I guess it was part of being the well-rounded liberal arts college-bound student.

But you still needed to take the SATs (we never heard of ACT in our neighborhood) to get into college.

It's basically impossible to study for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. I think the exams are more geared toward aptitude than knowledge anyway. I don't know. Maybe that's the point for some schools of higher education.

I still don't know why I had to figure out how a train traveling east at X miles per hour will arrive at a destination at a particular time when a train traveling west at Y miles per hour does something totally inexplicable. So how fast are they going. Huh? (I probably left that one blank, my deductive reasoning being what it is).

I don't remember what my scores were, but they weren't great. I think I took the exams twice, because it was on a chart somewhere (probably in some college) that scores were generally higher when you took the test the second time around. (It also sounds like a scam).

I think my score actually dropped the second time. In theory, if I had taken the exam a third time, I probably could have tested my way out of college.

I mention all of this in light of the recent SAT scandal where well-to-do parents have been criminally charged with gaming the system to get their kids into prestigious schools by bribing coaches and educators. In some cases, they appear to be spending more money to bend the system than it would cost them in tuition.

At the same time, by cheating their kids' way into school, they're most likely knocking out somebody who's actually done the work to qualify for admission. It's been suggested that at least 700 people could be involved in a scam that goes back at least a decade. Stay tuned.

And it's a scandal with implications everywhere: what does it say about parenting? Elitism? Legacy? Affirmative action? Education? Simple morality? Money? No money?

As it turned out, I did go to college, a place called Kutztown State College (it's now a university) in Pennsylvania that focused on producing teachers and, primarily, art teachers. I went with the idea of becoming a secondary ed history teacher, but soon discovered that I didn't want to stand in front of a class of students who probably had higher SATs than I did.

So I switched to liberal arts English with the idea of becoming a sports writer, even though the school did not offer journalism in its curriculum. I learned (and earned) my keep with on the job training.

This was 1969 to 1973. Kutztown, nestled deep in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, was a state school and I was a commuter student. It took me 90 minutes round trip each day to drive back and forth to school, and I did that for all four years. My first semester tuition, because it was a state school and I didn't live on campus, was $50. By my final semester four years later, tuition had skyrocketed to $350.

My parents contributed toward the gas and insurance for my car, which happened to be a red 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. Fahrvergnugen, y'all. I think it was the only parental helicoptering they did as I went off to learn things about life that were not mathematical for myself.

I had a part-time job each summer (and sometimes into the scholastic year) that paid for my books and tuition. Kutztown will never be confused with the Ivy League, and I will never be confused with an actual scholar.

The prestige of going to Kutztown, as it turns out, was that it somehow prepared me to be to be a productive and functioning member of society, and we didn't have to bend the rules to do it.

It also turns out it wasn't that difficult.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Blue Eyed Bettys redux

The first clue we had that something might be a little different was the electric keyboard sitting stage left.

That confused me for a moment as we were finding our seats. The Blue Eyed Bettys are, on most nights, a three-piece string band featuring Ben Mackel on guitar, Sarah Hund on fiddle (or is it violin? I guess it depends on how you play it: in my mind, it's a violin for classical music, but it's a fiddle when the catgut smolders. Sarah makes the catgut smolder), and Daniel Emond on banjo.

From left: Ben, Daniel, Sarah and Kroy. Blue eyes all...
 Then I remembered what Sarah told me a couple years ago: that as good as Daniel is on the banjo, he's unbelievable on the keyboards. So, OK, I'm ready.

The second clue we had was the upright bass laying on its side, stage right. I knew the Bettys used a bassist on occasion, and apparently, this was going to be one of those nights. Oh, boy. As it turned out, the bassist was somebody named Kroy Presley from Charlotte. And, as Sarah told me, he just happens to share – albeit distantly – a bit of DNA with some guy named Elvis. For real.

The third clue we had was that the intimate Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania was sold out for Friday night's show. I've never been to this venue before when it was sold out. Usually, the Bettys attract a comfortable following that allows for some elbow room, but this was different. They were going to play for a full house, including about a dozen or so Betty first-timers.

I've written about the Bettys before, but just for a refresher recall that all three are primarily stage actors based out of New York City and who met serendipitously while doing a theater production in Florida a while back. They essentially have a second home in the Piedmont, I think in part because Daniel is a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. Also, Ben – a graduate of Salisbury's Catawba College – currently lives in Asheville, soaking up all the Blue Ridge inspiration that endlessly trickles down the mountain from that eclectic artist colony. Plus, he once was a resident actor at the Barter Theater in nearby Abingdon, VA., for eight years, so there's that.

Sarah is a force of nature unto herself, with a beautifully evocative and dynamic voice that can elicit chill bumps one moment and then tenderly caress the emotional heart nanoseconds later. She's remarkable.

As for Kim and myself, it had been two years since we last saw the Bettys perform and we just couldn't wait.

So when the music began, it was as if the universe had moved into perfect alignment. Their signature  harmonies were tight, their musicianship was mind-blowing, and their stage banter and audience repartee were both witty and charming. These guys are really quick on their feet. I didn't realize how much we missed them until they started performing.

The set list included an even mixture of self-written original tunes (some with hysterical lyrics) to familiar goodies like "Landslide," "Crayola Doesn't Make a Color for Your Eyes," "Ain't No Sunshine," and "I've Just Seen a Face."

They've been performing together now for about six or seven years (interrupted, as they are, by their other projects) and I'm thinking that, even so, the quality of their shows has reached a level that exceeds fine tuning. I don't know how they do it.

I just hope it doesn't take two more years before we see them again.

Sunday, March 3, 2019


I had my socks blown off last night.

Kim and I did something we've never done before in our nearly 39 years of married life together.

(Got your interest now, huh?)

We went to see a high school musical. In fact, we went to see the Lexington Senior High School production of Oklahoma!

We went primarily because Emma West, the daughter of our friends, Billy and Stacy West, had a leading role in the show. She played Laurey Williams.

 Did she ever.

We only know Emma peripherally because, as a teenager, she runs in vastly different circles than we do. She's worried about where she's going to college while we worry about whether or not we're getting a tax refund this year; she's worried about maintaining her lofty GPA while we're worried about how we're going to pay for getting our house painted. Stuff like that.

So when we do see Emma, it's usually in a social setting, like at a neighborhood party sitting around a fire pit, eating S'mores. "Hi, Emma, how's school going?" we'll ask. She'll answer, we smile, and our social spheres slowly drift apart from there.

But we knew she was involved in theater and we knew she was a pretty good dancer. And we were very curious about her role in Oklahoma!

So we went.

I don't think we expected this. Emma, from the very first note she sang (she sings? She sings like that?) was powerful, confident, and assured. Stage presence and nuance were everywhere, from her spoken lines to her ballet steps. She brought tears to our eyes because the depth of her talent was a joy to behold. Suddenly, our little circle went from "We know this girl" to "We KNOW this girl." She was an eye-opening surprise, and we took pride in her performance in that way you can take pride in somebody else's kid.

It was a wow moment.

Now, before I get too carried away, let me point out that virtually the entire ensemble – nearly 40 students – was magnificent. They might change my mind about seeing future high school productions. Kinsey Calderone, a freshman, was spectacular as Ado Annie. Dymond Robinson, a junior, was perfect as Aunt Eller. Geizi Romero Hernandez, another junior, was awesome as Curly, the male lead, and Devon Burns, a senior, nailed it as Will Parker. Franco Stumbo, a sophomore, was great as the peddler Ali Hakeem.

The production (which was physical at times, featuring one-handed cartwheels, elevated trust falls and high-flying somersaults) was fantastic, from the actors to the seven-piece orchestra. Stacy Sosebee-West, Emma's mother, made the costumes herself. There must have been 100 of them. I'm shaking my head in wonder.

But there are a couple other things to note here. As you may have noticed by many of the surnames, there was great diversity in this cast. At least 15 nationalities took part in this play about an American territory on the verge of American statehood. Let that tell you something. These kids are the future of Davidson County, hear them roar.

The quality of the production also brought some focus on the Lexington school system itself. Traditionally, it's the athletic teams that tend to be a reflection of a school's heartbeat. But the arts can be a part of that, too. We generally don't see that because high school stage productions don't usually take place twice a week for three months of the year.

But the arts are our common voice to help express our vast diversity and points of view. LSHS is a melting pot that perhaps makes the community a little stronger, a little deeper, a little more tolerant. Stir constantly. Add spice. Taste occasionally.

I'll get off my own stage now. I need to find some socks.