Andrew Dys

Biscuits, coffee and brightened lives

Every morning for almost eight years, the pickup truck would circle wide through the lot and find the same parking spot at the Bojangles' restaurant on Cherry Road.

Out would pop a little older man, wearing bib overalls and long-sleeved shirt because work might need doin'. Even though his daughter, Vonnie, would set out a casual suit each night, which he would refuse to wear the next day.

Glenn Wilson would come in the restaurant and look to see the table of older men at the one side and nod a hello. He would stand in line, quietly and smiling, then order. The same thing, every day.

"Sausage on dark, small coffee with three creamers, two packets of strawberry jelly, and water," said Kat Richardson, one of the cashiers.

"He liked the biscuit good and brown, what we call a dark," Richardson said.

The cost was $1.08. Including tax.

The coffee was free. People of a certain age get free coffee at Bojangles' and other places like it. Those older people gather in these places each day, starting in the dark through the first streams of light, and they spend their $1.08.

People who start out as sharecroppers, work in sawmills and textile mills, they know the value of a dollar. Or precisely, $1.08.

"Daddy knew that coffee was free," said Vonnie Cunningham, one of six daughters and three sons of Glenn Wilson.

Wilson would carry the tray to that same table in the corner and place his elbows on the tabletop with his hands clasped. He would pray, not a five-second job, but a real thanks that lasted a minute or even two. The other older men noticed, and the clerks noticed, and the other customers noticed.

Because Wilson did this every single day.

Every day, the same seat

If another daughter came down from North Carolina to see him, like Mildred Bares did not long ago when she couldn't find her father at home, she would drive to Bojangles.

"And there he was, in the same seat," Bares said. "He loved to go there. He said it was a highlight of his day."

Then he would eat, and read the paper, and listen and talk a little about the weather and how his tomatoes were. Something would be funny and that cackle, the older man laugh, would come from deep down somewhere that young people do not have.

Somebody would walk by on the way out the door and Wilson would say, "Be careful out there."

After an hour, maybe 90 minutes, Wilson would leave.

He told no one at the restaurant where he ate at least 2,500 mornings that he was a longtime preacher in North Carolina. Still was, in Rock Hill, part-time at Crawford Road Church of Christ. Even at 92, he preached on Sept. 9, the day after his birthday. The second Sunday of the month was his turn. And Wilson was, as we now know, a man of habit. He didn't miss his turn.

People didn't know he was a widower twice, adamantly independent and living alone, and a daily mainstay in later hours at the Bi-Lo nearby, at KFC, and on Sundays at Captain's Galley seafood. They didn't know he had nine children, 25 grandchildren, 43 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren.

"I just knew he was a nice, sweet man," said Richardson, the Bojangles' cashier. "It was a pleasure to see him, talk to him. The kind who made your day better."

So many mornings in the past several years, over a third or fourth cup of coffee in the back canteen of The Herald building, Sports Editor Gary McCann would tell me of a little older man at Bojangles'. The cackle laugh, the prayers, the sameness of the breakfast and the easy banter with strangers.

McCann, no spring chicken, knows where to get the free coffee to go with his sausage biscuit every morning. McCann spends $1.08 like it's his last $1.08.

"The stories that man must have," McCann told me a hundred times.

Friday was a day like seven-plus years of days. Wilson drove to the Bojangles'. Parked in his spot. He got out of his truck. But he collapsed in the parking lot. Customers and workers rushed to help, then the police and ambulance arrived. But Glenn Wilson died, around 8:25 a.m.

McCann mentioned to me early this week he hadn't seen the man at Bojangles. Wednesday morning, McCann opened up the paper to the obituaries and he pointed and said, "Oh, no. There he is."

He didn't have to say who.