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Who was “Pappy Gay”?

Merton Vance

Glenn Shiver contributed this photo of "Pappy Gay" behind the counter at his soda shop. The photo was taken around 1965.

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.”

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16 Responses to “ Who was “Pappy Gay”?”

  1. On March 19, 2010 at 2:17 pm Robert Roche wrote:

    I don’t remember going into Pappt Gays that much but I was a regular customer at Harden’s Barber Shop next door. We moved to Jacksonville with the railroad in 60 and I believe my brother was friends with Pappy Gays son down here. I would have gone to Chestnut school but I went to St Mary’s but didn’t live very far away and we frequented that shopping area

  2. On March 19, 2010 at 10:46 pm Tom wrote:

    Excellent article. Brought back lots of great memories of the good ole days.

  3. On March 20, 2010 at 8:54 am Tom Craig wrote:

    I was fortunate in that I lived only a couple of blocks from “Pappy Gay’s” in the early 1950’s when I attended New Hanover High School. It was our favorite gathering place during the summers and after school.

    I remember the huge jar of pickles that sat on the counter.
    There was a standing challenge to anyone who would try to eat every pickle in the jar. If you ate them all, they were free, but if you couldn’t finish all of them, you had to pay a nickle for each one you had eaten. My best friend, Jimmy Williamson, who could eat more sour pickles than anyone I have ever known, spent many hours staring at that jar, but never got up the nerve to take the challenge.

    Pappy and Mrs. Gay were great role models for all of us who frequented their soda shop in those days, and I have never forgotten them or “the best hotdogs in the world”.

  4. On March 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm B. G. Clay wrote:

    One of Pappy Gay’s first jobs when he was young was sweeping up the peanut shells at the old Bijou theater on Front St.

  5. On March 21, 2010 at 8:46 am "Doc" Brown wrote:

    My friends and I went to Pappy’s for lunch several times a week from NHHS (61 to 64). We really enjoyed his “humor and good food”. One of Pappy’s favorite past times other than the older cars, was going to the “DOG’ races in Florida.. He reminded me of Col. Sanders “KFC”. The Gay’s were really nice folks!!

  6. On March 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm Reba Decker wrote:

    Pappy Gay’s was not only for the children. We lived on 17th and Wrightsville Ave and I went to Chestnut too. My family would go to eat there and Daddy loved his bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. He never ate less than two. Those were good old days and this article brought back lots of good memories.

  7. On March 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm Rachael wrote:

    It doesn’t matter where I have been n my 60+ years, no one has had a better tasting burger than Pappy Gay! The Goody Goody’s burgers are close.

    The little strip center where Pappy Gay’s was, had Smith’s Flooring, Harden’s Barbershop, a cleaners, then Pappy’s.

    Today, where the Rountree Law offices are, this building was a grocery store and the east side [25 or26th street?] was someones home. The owners of the grocery store lived in a house next door to Pappy’s

    Here is to Pappy and Mrs Gay for having the best burgers and hot dogs in town ever. [Some peple may argue Merritts Drive In were better!]

  8. On March 23, 2010 at 3:23 am Anne Russell wrote:

    Great story! Great comments! Thank you.

  9. On March 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm Emmy Davis Fisher (Denver, now. BRRR) wrote:

    I lived a few blocks away across the street from Chestnut Street School. Tommy Marshburn and I graduated from there and were the “original” 1st graders, I think. Pappy Gay and my Father (J. Knight Davis) were boyhood friends so that was the first place I was ever allowed to walk to alone. I burned a hole in my good camel’s hair coat pocket when we were sneaking a “cig” in the back booth be cause my Father walked in the front door! Carney’s Grocery was just next door and walking down there, I could pick up enough glass bottles for deposit for a comic book.

    Angus Olmstead’s Daddy had a grocery store for awhile next to Pappy Gays. Bubble Gum was scarce and a new thing for us (Yankee’s had it first) and we would “line up” in front of the store and Mr. Olmstead would stand there with a box of “Double Bubble.” It was a penny a piece and we would only allowed 5 pieces to be fair to others.

  10. On March 24, 2010 at 12:50 pm Jim Sullivan wrote:

    I can’t believe no one said anything about his speed! it was so busy during lunch he could make a hot dog in 10 seconds flat! My brother and I took a stop-watch in one day and he told us if he did not give us the hot dog in 10 seconds…it would be FREE. When my brother said GO! he gave us the hot dog in 9 seconds flat . we really had fun that day. I will never forget him! oh, and by the way , we ordered the dog “all the way” !

  11. On March 24, 2010 at 5:30 pm Tom Marshburn wrote:

    If anyone would like the original recipe for Pappy’s hot dog chili, go t nhhs57.com. Angus Olmstead got this recipe from Pappy’s son, Joe, before he died.

  12. On March 28, 2010 at 8:54 pm Jeff Breen wrote:

    Just seeing the name brought back great memories.My dad and I would walk from Pender Ave. past the old Parkers store where he would get a Budweiser then to Pappy Gays for hotdogs and back to Wallace Park to sit and build little wooden forts with sticks.I must have been 5.Great article

  13. On April 11, 2010 at 12:05 pm Carolyn Gore Chapman Cascia wrote:

    I lived on Kenwood Ave. and attended Chestnut and NHHS. Pappy Gay’s was my very favorite hangout and his hot dogs and chili were the best ever. His son Joe gave me Pappy’s chili recipe in 1990, informing me that Pappy always omitted one ingredient when he gave out his recipe. I never could duplicate the taste, so I’m still wondering if I got the exact one. However, it does match Angus’ recipe. Pappy was a good friend to all us kids and we kept his business thriving. I moved to Jacksonville in 1960 with the railroad but have never found a hot dog and chili to match Pappy’s.

  14. On August 5, 2010 at 11:10 am Sadie wrote:

    Pappy Gays was located on Princess st. before moving down to kenwood and Market.I think it was the corner of 8th.

  15. On October 11, 2011 at 7:20 pm Wayne wrote:

    Re: “Their tiny restaurant was … in the same small strip that contained Hardee’s Barber Shop, which was an institution as well.” — I think it was Harden’s Barber Shop, not Hardee’s.

  16. On March 17, 2016 at 2:36 pm charlie halterman wrote:

    Grew up one block away from Pappy Gay’s . It was Hardin’s Barbershop, not Hardee’s. Gay was next to Carney’s Market on the other side. He used to hide us in the potato room at lunch when Ed Jones would come over from Chestnut looking for us. Probably spent all of the money I made on my paper route eating there.

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