Thursday, April 1, 2010

Old-School Success

Vergos and his generation knew more hard work than networks.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Like the restaurant he founded, Charlie Vergos, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of a kind.

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous is the definitive Memphis barbecue restaurant and gathering place for downtowners and visitors. You can always run into somebody — politicians, bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, fans and coaches — at lunch on Friday or at dinner on the weekend. It's a must for friends from out of town.

Until he became ill a few years ago, Vergos was a fixture in the dining room, where he presided in shirtsleeves, arms crossed and eyes seeing everyone and everything. Once he got to know you, he would find you a table and greet you with the latest news. His conversation was often as pungent as his barbecue.

Vergos, like others of his generation, knew more about hard work than networks. After high school, he attended night law school for two years but never went to college. He was 22 years old when he opened his basement restaurant in 1948, and he kept it going through thick and thin.

In our era of nonstop networking, the quarterlife crisis, college admissions anxiety, and a recession that we are told is the worst since the Great Depression, it's worth remembering the careers of Vergos and others who left a lasting mark on Memphis.

Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inns, which had its headquarters in Memphis for several years, was a high school dropout who sold magazine subscriptions and popcorn at movie theaters as a kid. He built his first house with earnings from pinball machines. His business partner, the successful homebuilder Wallace E. Johnson, called himself "a poor little old peckerwood boy from Mississippi." Johnson took correspondence courses after high school. His biography is titled Work Is My Play.

Abe Plough, founder of the Memphis drug company that became part of global giant Schering-Plough, went to work in 1908, after grammar school, selling bottles of "antiseptic healing oil" from a horse-drawn wagon. The Plough Foundation is a positive force in Memphis a century later.

Elvis Presley was a greaser who grew up in a federal housing project and majored in shop at Humes High School. "His peers deemed him effeminate and different," wrote David Halberstam in his book The Fifties. "Everyone, it seemed, wanted a shot at him, particularly the football players. ... The one thing he had was his music."

Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Studio, was, in Halberstam's words, "a raw, rough man with an 11th-grade education, pure redneck in all outward manifestations, such as his love of used Cadillacs."

B.B. King picked cotton and drove a truck in the Mississippi Delta before hitchhiking to Memphis to work as a deejay and play guitar on Beale Street. He's still touring. Songwriter and actor Isaac Hayes of Stax Records fame got his diploma from Manassas High School when he was 21.

Writer and Civil War historian Shelby Foote got into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on his second attempt, after his high school principal refused to recommend him. Foote was a bohemian in his younger years and not much of a joiner.

"About six months after I moved here, my fellow Legionnaires had a meeting to do something about all the smut that was coming into Memphis," Foote said in 1996. "They went to a bookstore and got three of my paperbacks and took them to burn them." (Thinking better of it, they threw them in the garbage dump instead.)

Marion Hayes, the founder of ServiceMaster, which has its headquarters and 684 employees in Memphis, never got beyond the eighth grade while growing up in Pocahontas, Arkansas.

Jack Binion, the father of the World Series of Poker and one of the first to see the potential of Tunica as a gambling destination, got his education working in his father's casino in Las Vegas, starting when he was a teenager. Fifty years later, he sold Horseshoe Gaming to Harrah's for $1.45 billion.

Granted, some of these people lived a long time ago. But it's not like there weren't any colleges or the "right" civic groups. I have a vague memory from high school of the Sinclair Lewis novels Babbitt and Main Street.

So if you're young and restless, didn't get into Vanderbilt, don't have 100 friends on Facebook, never heard of the creative class, or if you're older and have kids who work dirty jobs, remember that there are still lots of ways to make it.

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