When Lee Annie Bonner read my recent column on former East St. Louis Sports Editor Ellis Veech, the tears started to fall.
In the mid-1950s, she spearheaded an impromptu group that was looking for ways to inspire East St. Louis youngsters. Well, they thought, how about inviting one or two of the black stars from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the east side the next time they visited St. Louis?
She took the idea to Veech, who delivered an event that baseball fans would give anything to attend today: Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and James "Junior" Gilliam all took part in a red-letter day for East St. Louis.
"It was so exciting," recalled Bonner, a long-time community activist. "All the people in our community came out to Lincoln Park. We had the biggest picnic and parade, and (Veech) was responsible for it."
Of course, Bonner has been a fireball herself. As a long-time (and award-winning) beautician, she helped raise funds for the Mary Brown Community Center, where Jackie Joyner-Kersee spent time as a child. She also was the first metro-east black woman to win the St. Louis Globe-Democrat's Woman of Achievement award. (Her two sisters also won the award, including prominent educator Dr. Lillian Parks.)
"I'm not working like I used to," said Bonner, now 87, who still lives on Vogel Place in East St. Louis. "But I still do some things."
An order of McFacts
It never fails.
You think you've gotten the story from the horse's mouth, and the horse turns out to be something less than a journalistic thoroughbred.
Apparently, that was the case last Sunday in my column on the first McDonald's restaurant in Belleville. After blowing dust off some old clips in our paper's morgue, I used information from past interviews with Dave Embry to report that the golden arches here greeted their first customer in October 1961 and that Embry took over a year later.
Not so, says Mike Hayes, of Lebanon -- and he should know. Now 66, he says he was one of the original employees under then-owner Don Shay when the restaurant opened Feb. 12, 1962. Hayes then stayed on for eight years after Embry, who wound up owning nearly a dozen area McDonald's, took over in October 1963.
He eventually became Embry's partner until 1972, when Embry bought him out. Hayes went on to open the Ponderosa Steak House next door and also got in on the ground floor when Rax restaurants moved into the metro area in 1978.
"I knew Dave as well as anyone," Hays said of the late restaurant entrepreneur, adding, "Dave did have a way of telling a story that maybe was not all the truth."
With an exact date, I searched for a ribbon-cutting story in the News-Democrat, but the biggest news that week in 1962 was the opening of the Piggly Wiggly on Valentine's Day at 17th and West Main (now Family Video). So this time I will rely on Hayes' detailed recollections.
He says the Belleville McDonald's (the chain's 399th restaurant) served its first fish sandwich in 1965, not '64.
"The Good Friday sales of the fish sandwich exceeded 3,000," Hayes said. "We still served freshly prepared french fries, and that day we sold over 2,500 pounds of french fries."
But catsup? Fuggedaboutit.
"Try to get catsup and (corporation owner) Ray Kroc said no, not on his freshly prepared fries."
Hayes also says Embry's restaurants were hiring females years before 1975, when Embry said Belleville hired its first coed.
"The government said we were discriminating, so McDonald's was forced to hire women, and, yes, the hanky-panky began."
Countless burgers followed -- and many memories for Hayes.
"We had a manager, who, every Sunday night, would pour Rock and Rye alcohol into the bowl we served the orange drink from," Hayes said. "It was tasty, and everyone liked our orange drink. Now they know why. I have other secrets which will be taken to the grave -- but nothing that would have harmed anyone's health.
"Thanks for the story, because McDonald's was a turning point for the franchise and was talked about in the corporation as a big success story. People came from all around to see what we were doing to increase the business as we had done."
Where would you go to see the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes?
Answer to Thursday's trivia: In 1923, Frederick Stanley Mockford was a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. He was asked to find a word that would be short and easily understood yet convey the feeling of urgent distress to pilots and ground crews in an emergency. Since much of the air traffic he dealt with was coming from Le Bourget Airport in Paris, Mockford decided on "Mayday" from the French word m'aider as in "venez m'aider" -- "come help me."