Greeson: Long goodbye for Longhorn's Willie Kimble

Susan Danner, Longhorn co-owner, and longtime employee Willie Kimble at the restaurant where Kimble worked for 41 years. Thursday is his last day.

There will be smiles on Thursday at The Longhorn Restaurant.

That's not news. The great neighborhood diner, which has for decades served up breakfast and lunch, is used to smiles.

This Thursday, though, there also will be tears.

This Thursday, Charlie and Susan Danner, who own the Longhorn with partner Henry Smith, will bid adios to Willie Kimble.

photo Jay Greeson

For those who know the Longhorn - and the Danners - this is news. Big news.

Willie, an Orange Grove graduate, celebrated his 41st year at the Longhorn this spring - his mother worked at the Longhorn back then and helped him get the job - and now Willie's hanging it up. He's retiring, heading to Virginia to live with his sister.

He will leave behind a lifetime of memories and friends who will truly miss him.

"He's one of a kind," said Susan Danner, fighting back tears.

After so long in one spot - Willie has worked for five different owners at the Longhorn - the stories are endless.

As the North Shore exploded, Willie would make sure the parking reserved for the Longhorn was being used by Longhorn patrons. He would walk customers to their cars under umbrellas when it rained.

He did whatever was asked. He showed up when he was supposed to. He offered a day's work for a day's pay. Those are values in short supply these days.

Willie made a life, despite his challenges, and that life was well-spent.

"Oh, there are too many," Willie said last week when asked about his favorite stories. "I think I like dishwashing best, but it all was fun. I know I like it here."

And he is liked there.

Scratch that. Willie is loved at the Longhorn, and that, like his last day, should be celebrated.

His brother-in-law nicknamed him "Chili Willie" because that was his go-to Longhorn lunch for so long. Like the rest of us, Willie knows what he likes and was a creature of habit - whether it was chili every day or pancakes every morning.

The family oriented Longhorn is where regulars pull up to one of the 16 counter barstools and have their coffee before they get to the Business section of the Times Free Press.

The Longhorn family will lose a cherished member Thursday when Willie says goodbye.

"He will be sorely missed," Charlie Danner said.

Susan Danner expects a lot of folks who are household names to come by Thursday and wish Willie well, be they industry leaders or judges or elected officials. The Danners are going to have a jar out to help Willie with the costs of transitioning to his new home.

As for Willie, well, he's excited about the new chapter of his life and thankful for all those who have been part of his journey along the way.

One of the "Chili Willie" fans is WDEF meteorologist Chip Chapman, who was a camp counselor when Willie was at Orange Grove back in the late 1970s.

And if you want to smile, read this story from Chip, who along with the "News 12 at Noon" crew, will be broadcasting live at the Longhorn on Willie's last day:

"That first year [at camp], Willie was afraid of the water. Eventually, the camp lifeguard and I coaxed him into the swimming pool, and Willie took to swimming ... well, like a fish to water. Willie caught on to the basics of dog-paddling and then wanted to learn freestyle. At the end of each pool session, Willie would always smile and say 'Thanks, Chip! I'll make ya proud!'

"Willie's swimming ability grew exponentially, and by the end of our second summer together, he was a very accomplished swimmer. Willie could out-swim just about everyone, counselors and lifeguards included. And again, at the end of each pool session, Willie would always smile and say 'Thanks Chip! I'll make ya proud!' The next year, Willie went to the National Special Olympics Track & Field meet in New York and won a gold medal in swimming. I'm not sure who was happier over that win - Willie or me!

"I would run into Willie numerous times in the years that followed, usually while he was working at Longhorn. He'd always greet me by name, with a big hug and that infectious smile. We'd chat a bit. Then, Willie would say 'I guess I gotta get back to work.'"

Willie, enjoy your time with family; you have earned it.

And we're sure Chip would agree, Willie.

You made all of us proud.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6343.