Gearhardt Joseph “Pappy Gay” Whilden ran a popular sandwich shop at the corner of Kenwood Avenue and Market Street, currently the location of a convenience store.
Pappy Gay’s was a frequent hangout for students from New Hanover High School and the nearby Chestnut Street School (now Snipes Elementary).
Whilden died in 1990 at the age of 83, after spending more than 40 years in the restaurant business, according to his obituary in the Wilmington Morning Star on August 6, 1990. But along the way, he left many customers – most of them school kids at the time – with a lifetime of memories.
MyReporter.com got several questions from people asking about what happened to Pappy Gay, and Scott Nunn, who writes the “Back Then” column for the StarNews also asked people to send in their recollections. We were swamped with dozens of responses, probably more than we’ve ever gotten for similar “whatever happened to” kinds of questions.
Here’s a sampling of some of the comments we collected:
Roland Jones recalls Pappy Gay’s from his boyhood days, when he attended Chestnut Street School. Jones’s father was assistant principal at the school and occasionally caught junior high students who would sneak off campus to eat lunch at Pappy Gay’s.
“I attended Chestnut Sreet School in 1959 and 1960 and several of us would sneak over to Pappy Gay’s at lunch time for hot dogs,” wrote Gary Leggitt, who now lives in Southport. “We were forbidden to leave school grounds, but his dogs were so good we took the chance.”
“He fixed the best hot dogs in town at the time,” said Mark Gaddy. “When we would go get hot dogs he’d always give us children a small Tootsie Roll.”
“You’ll probably get hundreds of responses to the question about Pappy Gay’s because he had hundreds of teenage friends who considered him (and his wife, affectionately called “Mrs. Gay”) a second set of parents,” writes Herb Harriss. “Their tiny restaurant was … in the same small strip that contained Hardee’s Barber Shop, which was an institution as well. They sold the best hot dogs, hamburgers and a sandwich they called the “Schoolboy.” The Schoolboy was sold for 15 cents and during lunchtime on a school day was sold two for a quarter.”
“Of course, Pappy’s was off limits for students from Chestnut Street Junior High (but not for NHHS students), resulting in many stories about hiding from the “authorities”. Hiding in the restrooms or trash cans were common stories. One story I can personally attest was my own suspension from Chestnut when someone saw me at Pappy’s and turned me in. To this day, I don’t know who ratted me out, but my mother had to go with me to visit Miss Annie Snipes, who was the principal. That was not a good day in my life, as my mother was a school teacher. She was not amused by my transgression. I was never caught there again during school hours.”
Harriss also recalls that Pappy Gay was an antique car buff and owned four restored cars that he would drive to work.
Mitch Jenkins, another customer, recalled it this way:
“Pappy Gay’s was a classic “soda shop,” serving 15-cent hot dogs and 25-cent hamburgers, along with sodas and fountain drinks. It was a small place, but it could have easily been at home as a “Back to the Future” set. There was a juke box, booths and wire tables and chairs with a heart design in their backs. It was run by a distinguished white haired gentlemen who was assisted by his wife at times. It was a favorite hangout for NHHS and Chestnut Street School students. It was in operation during the fifties and closed sometime in the early- to mid-sixties.”
“Pappy Gay’s was a favorite of my group of friends from the time we got our drivers licenses in 1950 until we graduated from New Hanover High in 1952,” wrote Mitch Jenkins of Hampstead.
“My favorite lunch, since I was a growing teenager, was the special of three hot dogs for a quarter and a big bottle of Pepsi Cola for a nickel! Before we graduated, inflation set in, and Pappy had to eliminate the hot dog special price, and charge us a straight 10 cents each. Pappy seemed to enjoy the kids, and he treated us well. Those were happy days!”
“He looked a lot like the longtime bandleader of the Boston Pops orchestra, Arthur Fiedler, with white hair and white mustache,” recalled Carlton Allegood. “He was assisted in the shop by his wife, to whom we was devoted.”
“During lunch, they were regularly overwhelmed with students, and there was a flurry of motion behind that long counter as the Gays scrambled to make sandwiches, and serve the lunch crowd, Allegood wrote. “No lost motion, and very short sentences such as ‘have your money ready, have your money ready.’ ”
Ed Hickman, another customer, recalls that Whilden sold the business sometime in the mid 1970s after the building was scheduled to be demolished. He remembers someone moved the shop to a building along Burnt Mill Creek, near the current Port City Java main offices, but the place was then sold again and closed not long after that.
This response came from Charles Jones:
“My favorites at Pappy Gay’s were: The schoolboy sandwich (white bread, mayo, sliced tomato and sour pickle, shredded lettuce and a piece of lunch meat so thin Pappy said it only had one side). He warned people not to open the sandwich and look at the meat, because the fan would blow it away.”
“The fish head sandwich for seven cents, or whatever change you had in your pocket. This was hot dog chili folded into a heel of bread.”
“The cheeseburgers deserve more space than we have here. There are unconfirmed reports that one Pappy Gay cheeseburger is preserved in argon gas on an Ionic pedestal in the Hall of Cheeseburgers at the Smithsonian.”
Date posted: March 19, 2010