Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?
Erby Walker, a longtime employee of The Varsity restaurant and an Atlanta icon, passed away on June 23rd, 2008. Walker died at Grady Memorial Hospital from cardiac arrest. He was 70.
Walker was a full-time employee of The Varsity from 1955 to 2003. He then claimed to be “bored” in his retirement, so he went back to work at the restaurant 2-3 days a week. Although Walker didn’t invent the restaurant’s “What’ll ya have?” slogan, he made it his trademark and permanently cemented it into Atlanta’s consciousness.
I almost feel like I “knew” Mr. Walker my entire life. I remember my Dad taking me to The Varsity on Saturdays as a little kid, either before a Georgia Tech game, or when I’d go “work” at my Dad’s store*. I remember Mr. Walker being there. In fact, I even remember being scared of him, because he was so loud and intimidating. And he was always there.
When I got my own car at 16, I’d often get bored after school and take a carload of friends to The Varsity. Or go there on field trips. Or, let’s be honest: skip outta school on a lark to go to the High Museum and to The Varsity for lunch. Or maybe go there on a second or third date: hey, as a cash-strapped teenage boy in 1986 Duluth, GA, a trip to The Varsity was a lot more exotic than going to the movies. By then I realized that Mr. Walker wasn’t “mean”, he was just trying to serve 50,000 meals a day… and that took the skill and guts of a drill sergeant. And Mr. Walker was still there.
Throughout my 20s, I’d still eat at The Varsity on a semi-regular basis. I was downtown quite often, and would sometimes duck in for a quick snack. And Mr. Walker was still there.
By my 30s, I’d really cut back on going to The Varsity. I was living on the north side of town, and rarely went in to the city just to buy records or go to thrift stores. Most of my friends were “too adult” to want to meet up at The Varsity before the few concerts we went to see in those days, so we’d go to Noodle or some place in Decatur instead. In fact, it seems like the only times I went downtown in my 30s were to eat (at fancy restaurants) or to go to nightclubs (after The Varsity had closed for the evening). But I’d still go to The V a few times a year… and when I went, Mr. Walker was usually there.
In 2003 I moved to Charlotte. In a fit of homesickness, I went and bought a Varsity t-shirt from their website, and would often wear it out. I’d usually get at least one or two “hey – The Varsity! That’s cool!” comments. And when I go back to town, I still wanna hit up The Varsity…but now Mr. Walker won’t be there.
Rest in peace, Erby!
* – I say “work” because I was 5-10 years old at the time. My dad had a warehouse. I don’t know how much real “physical labor” I did back then, but it probably wasn’t much. If you think I’m a weakling now, you shoulda seen me at 5 years old!