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Local News

July 16, 2013

Iconic local restaurant owner dead at 89

GREENVILLE — Dewey Fitzpatrick, who for many years served Greenville residents barbecue at his restaurant, The Spare Rib, died Sunday morning at the age of 89.

A native of Pales-tine, Texas, he first learned the food business working in his father’s restaurant while growing up, and he then studied commercial dietetics in the Army where as a staff sergeant he was put in charge of the mess hall at Fort McClellan, Ala.

Following the war, he moved his family to Chicago. He had wanted to become a lawyer, he said, and had been accepted at The John Marshal Law School there, but after learning that law positions were difficult for black graduates to obtain, he moved his family back to Texas in response to a job offer at the Oakland Vocational school in Greenville, a trade school for veterans.

While still working at the school, he opened The Spare Rib, serving on weekends only, in a building on Johnson street near the railroad tracks. His boss at the school told him he’d never be able to make a living selling barbecue, a fact which, considering his success, amused Dewey in later years.

Initially the restaurant had no name, but when he decided to place some newspaper ads, he was told the restaurant needed a name, and it became The Spare Rib.

“It just seemed a logical name — we were selling spare ribs there,” he said.

When the Audie Murphy overpass was built, he moved his restaurant to south Wesley Street.

In April 1980, when The National Geographic magazine devoted an entire issue to Texas, a staff writer interviewed Dewey and described him as “an outstanding practitioner of the art of pit barbecue.”

Richard Kaufman, “pops” conductor laureate for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, became a fan of Dewey’s barbecue and always made a point of coming up to Greenville early enough before the concerts in Municipal Auditorium so he could have lunch at The Spare Rib.

On learning of Dewey’s death, he emailed from California:

“It isn’t often that one has the opportunity to know a truly great man. In my life, one of the greatest men I have known is Dewey Fitzpatrick.  From the moment I walked into Dewey’s restaurant, The Spare Rib, I knew that I was in for a very special experience. In fact, before my first Greenville concert with the Dallas Symphony, the musicians told me that I MUST get to Greenville early in the day so that I could eat at The Spare Rib ... Dewey was a legend at the DSO!  I quickly discovered that not only was it the best barbecue I’d ever eaten, but Dewey’s loving personality made just being there so much fun, and indeed memorable. I also came to know and love Goldie (the other half of Dewey), his amazing daughter, Anne, and to admire the accomplishments of his entire family. Over the years, I brought my wife Gayle, my parents, my brother, guest DSO artists, and other friends to The Spare Rib, and they too became permanent Dewey Fitzpatrick fans. I could go on and on about my friend, Dewey, but the sadness I feel at his passing is tempered with the lifelong memories and the love I will always have for this truly great man.”

The Spare Rib closed in 2004. “I left when the property taxes got too high,” Dewey said, adding that he missed the contact with the public.

Greenville resident Melva Geyer has fond memories of Dewey: “Greenville has certainly lost an icon — a true community leader who was loved by all. His Spare Rib B-B-Q had a role in putting Greenville on the map, and he became somewhat of an ambassador for the community. While I was with the newspaper I had the opportunity to interview him a number of times on several issues. He had a great sense of humor and keen insight into his role in the community. What impressed me more, however, was his dedication as a family man. I know I will miss him.”

Dewey and his wife, Goldie, whom he married three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, were the parents of seven children. All seven graduated from college, and four have master’s degrees.

The couple were firm disciplinarians, recalled his daughter, Anne Haynes in a 2011 interview. “They taught us, ‘Nobody is any better than you are, but there are a whole lot of people who are just as good.’ They said, ‘We expect everything out of you — no excuses.’”

Haynes said the family was unique in one respect: “It was totally unusual to be black Catholics in Greenville. I remember walking into the church (it was old St. Mary’s at the time), and people driving by were almost falling out of their cars looking at us going in the door. Black people going in a Catholic church?”

Dewey and his wife were active members of the present-day St. William’s Catholic Church, and Dewey became a charter member of the Greenville council of Knights  of Columbus, the international Catholic men’s fraternity.

Bobb Mahrer of the Knights remembers that Dewey was influential in establishing some of the council’s annual fundraisers — first the St. Patrick’s Day dinner for 20 years, and then the annual Oktoberfest for charity.

“As men of faith, we members were also men of passion, and that passion would sometimes lead to heated discussions regarding decisions and how to proceed with a project. I recall how on many of these occasions Dewey would inject some of his humor and immediately get everyone to laughing.

Problem solved.

“Dewey also took his turn helping with the Knights Friday night dinners which are open to the public,” Mahrer said. “We always looked forward to Dewey’s turn because we knew he would  bring his famous barbecue as well as his homemade coleslaw, potato salad and cobbler. It was a great treat.”

And he was the proverbial good neighbor, added Greenville resident Noble Gilstrap.

“Dewey was my next-door neighbor, and almost daily we’d talk over the fence,” he said “He was good at working with young people, and he was generous about donating food when there was a death in a family — no matter who.”

Funeral services for Dewey Fitzpatrick will be at 10 a.m., Saturday, in St. William’s Catholic Church, 4300 Stuart. A Rosary will be recited at 6 p.m., Friday, in the chapel of Coker-Mathews Funeral Home.

Arrangements are under the direction of Cozine & Tarver Funeral Home.

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