Richard Hyatt: Keeping things the same

January 10, 2014 

Joan Thompson was waiting tables while her boss sat behind the counter smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. When she headed to the kitchen to place an order, Gus Peluso ordered her to empty his ashtray and get him another cup of coffee.

Her face blazed as red as the sauce on a 14-inch pizza. She told him to stick his job where the ovens didn't burn and reminded him that the six tables of customers she was juggling were more important than an over-flowing ashtray.

Walking out on Deorio's wasn't easy. Her husband, Rodney, cooked the pizzas, and she enjoyed her part-time job cajoling with hungry regulars at the restaurant nudged into a corner of Cross Country Plaza.

Giving it a family name and using family recipes, Gus Peluso opened Deorio's in 1961. With plastic tablecloths and department store art on the walls, it wasn't fancy, but it soon became a favorite at the city's first suburban shopping center.

Joan's full-time job was selling tickets at the Trailways Bus Station, and in a few days, she dropped by to pick up a final paycheck. Gus wanted to talk. She talked but made it clear she wasn't coming back to work.

"What you did the other night impressed me," Gus said. "You put the customers first. I don't want you to be a waitress. I want to sell you the place, and I'll sell it to you on credit."

She accepted, and for 46 years Joan has invested her soul into a place where old friends make new friends and the olives are whole, never sliced.

Deorio's is as it was. Willy Patterson and his Atlanta Falcon jersey mans the oven just as he has since he was a teenager. Sue Amneff takes your order, as she has for 27 years. Only the cost of a pizza has changed.

Joan was the ringmaster, sharing a saucy wit and a promise Deorio's would stay the same. Old-timers haven't seen her in recent months, though. She has been in and out of an intensive care unite and Monday morning she died.

Carolyn Joan Thompson was 65.

She has gone through several husbands, a fire in the building and her beloved Willy going AWOL -- but she never redecorated. It could have been a promise to Peluso or it might have been good business sense or maybe she realized how important this place was.

A fire upstairs in 2004 dumped 128 gallons of water on Deorio's, and while firefighters battled the blaze, she begged them to rescue some of the pictures on the walls. After settling with her insurance company, she spent some of her own money to restore the surroundings.

"She wanted it to be authentic," says retired Deputy Sheriff Joe Denson, a longtime family friend. "She wanted a child to know that it looked the same as it did when their mother came there to eat."

Scores of eating establishments have gone away in the past 53 years. But Deorio's, Dinglewood Pharmacy and Rose Hill Seafood have survived, and it isn't because of pizza, scrambled dogs or catfish. They thrive because of traditions and memories, things Joan has always protected.

People who know her best say caring for people has been one of her hallmarks. At Trailways, she was a sucker when someone needed money for a bus ticket. At home, she has cared for foster children and has been a doting grandmother to her two granddaughters -- one of whom helped prepare Joan for her funeral, which will be held at McMullen Funeral Home Chapel today at 10 a.m. Her nurturing spirit carried over to the restaurant. When Willy Patterson left to open his own place in 2008, I sat at a table with Joan and tried to console her. She cried like there had been a death in the family. He came back, and four years later she cared for him like a son after a severe heart attack.

Joan supported her as Sue balanced work and raised children. She has celebrated and mourned with longtime customers who laughed about how many snapshots around the cash register contain former husbands and wives.

Generations of diners appreciate her. They grew up in Deorio's and assumed they would take their grandchildren there.

"She was a friend to so many of us," said Twila Kirkland, who used to live a few blocks away from Cross Country. "The flame that is Columbus is dimmer today as one of its keepers is gone."

Now they wonder what will happen to a place they love but sometimes take for granted. Denson said that has been on the minds of those closest to Joan:

"Everyone concerned will do whatever it takes to keep Deorio's operating the way Joan would want it to run."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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