FORT WORTH — In 1998, Dottie Satterwhite missed three months of work to care for her dying mother. When her mother was gone and Satterwhite returned to her job — as a beloved waitress at the Ol’ South Pancake House — one of her regular customers was at the door to greet her.Van Cliburn swept Satterwhite into his famous embrace, and the two of them wept together. Then Cliburn handed her a check for $500, “to help you a little bit since you’ve been off.” For the next two weeks, Cliburn sent her flowers, prompting Satterwhite’s husband to ask, “What do you and that piano player have going?”An unlikely but true friendship, as it turned out.That bond is now commemorated with a plaque, unveiled at Ol’ South on Friday, what would have been the late pianist’s 79th birthday. It adorns the same corner booth where, for three years in the 1990s, Cliburn and companion Tommy Smith took meals several times a week, each one of them served by Satterwhite.“He was the high point of my time here,” said Satterwhite, a 76-year-old great-grandmother now in her 23rd year at Ol’ South. “I’ve served movie stars in here, but there is only one man, that’s Mr. Cliburn. There was nobody like him.”Cliburn, who lived in the exclusive Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills, died Feb. 27 from bone cancer. More than a half-century earlier, he was the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas who shocked the world by winning the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow.The triumph was said to inspire a thaw in the Cold War. Cliburn’s celebrity for a while eclipsed that of another young musician of the time, Elvis Presley. The pianist kept company with American presidents, European royalty, and movie stars.But Cliburn was also a famously gracious person who never lost his common touch. In the 1990s, when Cliburn was between cooks at his mansion, it was not surprising that he would end up in a place like Ol’ South, a family-style establishment near Texas Christian University since 1962.On their first visit, Cliburn and Smith took the corner booth near the kitchen.“Are you Mr. Cliburn?” Satterwhite asked. “He said, ‘Yes,’ and he stood up to shake my hand. He introduced me to Tommy. It was love at first sight. He was a special man.”Cliburn and Smith showed up four or five times a week after that, always around the beginning of Satterwhite’s 2 to 10 p.m. shift in the restaurant, which is open 24 hours. If their booth was occupied, Cliburn and Smith would wait until it was empty. They did not come if Satterwhite wasn’t working.“They just liked me,” she said. The afternoon meals were actually breakfast for Cliburn, a notorious night owl. He ordered a poached egg and wheat toast, but he and Smith sampled most of the Ol’ South menu, Satterwhite said.“He met so many people here,” Satterwhite said. “I would go tell them that a person wanted to meet him and he would say ‘Sure, bring them over.’ He would stand up and shake their hand and visit. He was like that.”Smith always left the tip, Satterwhite said. But when Cliburn would hug her and shake her hand to say goodbye, there was often a $10 bill in his palm, or a $20 or a $50. Cliburn once gave her $100 before she left on vacation.He also gave her CDs of his performances, and four tickets to the 1998 opening of Bass Hall, which featured Cliburn at the keyboard.Sometime in 1999, Cliburn told Satterwhite he had found a new cook. “He said, ‘We won’t be coming in as often as we do,’” she said. “It was sad.”Cliburn and Smith returned to Ol’ South occasionally after that, but usually in the wee hours when Satterwhite was not working. The pianist often left notes of greeting for her instead, the latest coming only months before his death.On Friday, in the famous corner booth, Satterwhite sat with her Bass Hall ticket stub and an autographed photograph showing the waitress and her famous friend.“It’s like, why me?” she said.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544 Twitter: @tsmadigan