Lieutenant Stevens never served in the military, but legions of folks from around this Army town respected him like an officer and loved him like a brother. And they mourn his death because of what and how he served them.
Stevens, the retired Dinglewood Pharmacy chef famous for his scrambled dogs, died Jan. 2 at Piedmont Columbus Regional’s midtown hospital after suffering cardiac arrest during dialysis. He was 87.
About 400 friends and colleagues came together Saturday at First African Baptist Church for his “home going,” followed by interment in Green Acres Cemetery.
“I believe that Lieutenant wouldn’t want us to be sad today,” Pastor Ambers Glenn, Jr., told the congregation. “Amen! He would want us to rejoice in the Lord.”
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Filled with song and prayer, the service celebrated Stevens’ life and honored his service to others. U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop stated in a proclamation presented to the family, “His arms of service reached out and touched all walks of life. He used the unifying force of food through his world-famous scrambled dogs, and a heart filled with love to make a difference in the lives of others.”
“He was kind, and he cared, and he took interest in people,” Dinglewood owner Terry Hurley told the Ledger-Enquirer. “… If you came in once a month or once every other month, he knew how you wanted your scrambled dogs done and what you wanted to drink.”
Stevens was born Nov. 12, 1931, to a single mother, the late Louisa Stevens, in Hurtsboro and graduated from Spencer High School in 1949.
His unusual first name comes from his birth date being the day after Veterans Day, which was called Armistice Day then, so his aunt suggested a military-themed name.
He served his home church, Lewis Memorial Baptist, in several capacities, including assistant superintendent, trustee, Sunday school teacher and treasurer. And the lunch counter at Dinglewood became another sanctuary for him.
Stevens worked at the 101-year-old pharmacy for 56 years full-time, retired in 2002, then part-time until the week before he died. Along the way, he and his scrambled dogs became legendary. From local residents to national celebrities, the meal and the man were appreciated and cherished.
The June 4, 2002, resolution adopted by Columbus Council praised him for his charitable work and giving “sensible advice to hungry high school students, curious visitors from other lands and political officer holders.”
Firm Roberts, a former Columbus restaurant owner, created the scrambled dog at a separate establishment. The concoction consists of a toasted bun, a chopped hotdog or two, a ladle of chili and topped by oyster crackers. You can get cheese, onions, ketchup, mustard, pickles and cole slaw on it, but don’t you dare try eating it with your hands, because it comes in a deep dish with a long spoon.
Stevens learned Dinglewood’s version of the scrambled dog from Sport Brown, but Stevens altered the all-beef chili by taking the salt out of the secret recipe. His personality also elevated the dish to its renowned level.
Full stomachs and full hearts
Josh Reynolds, 40, associate director for client services at TSYS, was one of Stevens’ regular customers for 25 years at Dinglewood.
“When times were really good, you went there to celebrate,” he said during the visitation at Charles E. Huff’s International Funeral Home. “When times were really bad, you went there to drown in your own sorrows. Lieutenant was always the constant. He gave you truthful advice when you needed to be smacked and kind words and a pat on your back when you needed to be lifted up.”
Never a husband nor a father, Stevens considered his co-workers and customers at Dinglewood to be part of his family — and the feeling was mutual.
“If you needed to be put in your place, he’d put you in your place, but he did it with kindness and love,” Reynolds said. “I can remember getting a little loud at one of the tables and him smacking me in the back of the head and saying, ‘This isn’t a library, but you need to have respect for the people around you.’”
Respect went both ways between Stevens and the people around him.
“He could say the most cutting things,” Reynolds said, “but you knew it was in your best interest to listen to him. ... He’d hug with you. He’d cry with you.”
The scrambled dog cost customers 95 cents when Hurley bought the pharmacy four decades ago, and it goes for $5.50 now, but the experience for Stevens’ loyal customers was priceless.
Patty Taylor, 71, founder and director emeritus of the Academy Dance Center, which used to be known by her name, has known Stevens since she attended junior high school at Holy Family, now called St. Anne-Pacelli.
Taylor recalled Stevens’ smiling, welcoming demeanor and infectious chuckles and laughs. She liked “his sense of humor, his kindness and his treatment of all of us absolutely the same. It didn’t matter what school we went to. There were people from all walks of life that went into Dinglewood. … And he remembered our names.”
That was empowering for Taylor and her peers.
“It was a personalization of us,” she said. “It made us feel important.”
Hurley, who met Stevens when he bought the pharmacy 44 years ago, said, “I never heard him speak evil of anybody. People that wouldn’t speak to me would go straight to him. … He was a very warm, very open, very loving person.”
Stevens showed that with his words and actions. One evening after closing, Stevens gave Hurley and his wife an impromptu dance lesson, pushing the tables and chairs aside, turning the music up and teaching them the Electric Slide and the Hully Gully.
They showed off those steps when the Commodores came to town. Although he never saw him drunk, Hurley said, Stevens enjoyed Crown Royal whiskey, so he tucked a bottle under his arm in the casket.
Stevens’ scrambled dogs have traveled to Washington, D.C., when Jimmy Carter was president, and to Italy and Saudi Arabia for wedding receptions.
Sometimes, the elites would come to Dinglewood. During the 1975-83 term of Georgia Gov. George Busbee, a highway patrol car would pull up to the pharmacy on Fridays. Often, the Georgia first lady, Mary Beth, would be along for the ride to visit with Stevens, and they always would take a batch of his chili back to the governor’s mansion. In 1976, she took the scrambled dogs and fixings to serve the specialty on a sterling silver tray to Prince Charles, who was visiting from England.
And one December day after closing, Hurley got a call from Aflac across Wynnton Road. It was Elena Diaz-Verson Amos, wife of Aflac principal founder John Amos, asking whether he could feed some friends. Those friends were the Cuban national choir, who gave them a private concert as their tip.
“For an hour, my wife and Lieutenant and I sat here and listened to the prettiest Christmas music you ever heard,” Hurley said.
Stevens eventually went Hollywood — well, at least to the Hollywood Connection entertainment complex in Columbus, where Lieutenant’s Diner was featured for 20 years, as well as at locations in Indiana and Utah, until AMC bought Carmike Cinemas in 2016 and renamed it the AMC Classic Diner.
Besides his mother, Stevens was preceded in death by his sister, Mattie Lewis. Survivors include his two nieces, Valerie Lewis of Columbus and Veronica Glenn of Atlanta.
Donations in the name of Lieutenant Charles Stevens are being accepted at any Synovus bank branch. The money will be used for funeral expenses, Glenn said, and to benefit the National Kidney Disease Foundation.
Ledger-Enquirer staff photographer Robin Trimarchi contributed to this story.