On Thursday, Dottie Satterwhite served up her last orders of chicken-fried steak and potato pancakes, and poured her last cups of coffee. Hearts were heavy all around the Ol’ South Pancake House as she did.
Satterwhite, 78, was retiring after 26 years as a waitress at the venerable Fort Worth diner, and for all that time the most important thing she offered wasn’t on the menu. Satterwhite, customers and co-workers said, always served a bottomless cup of kindness.
“I call her the mother of us all,” said Jack Robertson, an Ol’ South regular for the last six years. “She has that special power. The minute she meets you, it’s like she wraps her arms around you and makes her your family. There is something about her personality that everyone responds to.”
By everyone, Robertson meant from the rich and famous, like the late piano legend Van Cliburn, to the more anonymous folks who came to Satterwhite’s section for companionship and concern as much as the famous home-style cuisine.
“The people here are awesome to work for. The people who come in here are just like family,” Satterwhite said Tuesday during one of her last 2-10 p.m. shifts. “We have customers that I get attached to. If they pass I go to their funerals.”
She is somewhat baffled by the fuss. Service and genuine caring about her customers, whether they are first-timers or regulars, came naturally.
“That’s what it’s all about and I loved it,” Satterwhite said. “I get teary-eyed now, too, you know.”
Ol’ South has been serving its crispy bacon and pancakes on South University Drive since 1962, and no one has embodied the family-friendly feel of the place more than Satterwhite. No wonder that owner Rex Benson tried talking her out leaving. Could she come in a few hours on Saturday and Sunday to pour coffee and just visit with the customers?
“I wasn’t going to go down without a fight,” Benson said. “But you know, I’m happy for her.”
‘A second mother to me’
Satterwhite came to Ol’ South in 1989 after she and her husband retired from owning their own restaurants. Monty Youngblood was one of her first customers and has been served by the same waitress almost every day for 26 years.
“She’s the sweetest person I’ve ever met,” Youngblood said Wednesday while choking back tears. “She’s been like a second mother to me. I’m just so grateful that she’s been a part of my life.”
Satterwhite is also living proof that kindness begets kindness. On Tuesday she told the story of customer Sara Schoenvogel.
“Sara was a beautiful lady who would come in and sit right there and make jewelry,” she said. “She made these earrings I’m wearing. Well, one day about 3 in the morning she called me and said: ‘Dottie I need you. I’m in the hospital.’
“I went down there and she said, ‘They told me I’ve got three months to live.’ There was no family, no chaplain, just me and we were friends only from the restaurant. She said, ‘Don’t let go of my hand.’ ”
A few months later, in January 2014, Satterwhite and Robertson attended Schoenvogel’s funeral in Brenham. A few weeks after that, Schoenvogel’s brother, Walter, came to Fort Worth to see the booth at Ol’ South where she had found a second home.
“He reaches in his pocket and hands me a check,” Satterwhite said. “I saw a 5 so I thought it was for $500. It was for $5,000. He said, ‘You held her hand for six hours. You took care of her and she loved you.’ ”
‘The most perfect gentleman’
In the mid-1990s, a lanky gentleman showed up at Ol’ South, asking for a quiet table. Van Cliburn introduced himself.
“Sir, I know who you are,” Satterwhite said. “He was the most perfect gentleman I’ve ever known. His housekeeper had gotten sick so he didn’t have anyone to cook for him so he came in. I’d take care of him whenever he came in and he’d always come over to give me a hug. Mr. Cliburn would always shake my hand when he left, and I would look down and there would be a $20 or a $50 in my hand.”
In 1998, when Satterwhite missed several months of work to care for her dying mother, Cliburn regularly called the restaurant to check on her.
“Finally, when I did get back, this man was standing up there. He had this long black coat and he had a dozen roses,” Satterwhite said of Cliburn, who died in 2013. “We cried and hugged and he said, ‘I’ve got something for you.’ It was a check for $500. He said, ‘This is going to take care of some of the expenses.’
“He sent flowers to my house for almost a month,” she said. “My husband said, ‘What do you and that piano player have going on, anyway?’ ”
‘It’s time I left’
Satterwhite’s husband died few years ago. Her grown children are clamoring for more of her time. She plans trips to California and Colorado to visit relatives.
“At 78 years old, it’s time I left,” she said.
On Friday at 6 p.m., Ol’ South will throw her a proper going-away party. It will be a bittersweet occasion for many.
“I’m sure I’ll be very emotional. I’m a very emotional person,” Satterwhite said. “And when I told Jack [Robertson] I was leaving, this man cried. That shocked the hell out of me.”
Robertson says he and other regulars will try and keep up with Satterwhite, but it will be strange to see her without a coffeepot in her hand.
“Strangers come in all the time and by the time they leave it feels like she’s a friend, that they’ve known her for years,” he said. “That’s a gift. That’s what she does.”
Sitting across the table at Ol’ South, Satterwhite blushed.
“I’m just Dottie,” she said. “I’m just me.”