“He meant so much to so many people,” said Bob Omainsky, owner of the Wintzell’s Oyster House downtown location since 1999. “He was so genuine. To know him was to love him.”
Former owner Wendell Quimby placed it all on Willie’s shoulders. “Wentzell’s had been closed for about six months before I bought it in 1994. They were showing me around the building when I saw the Rolodex in the office and pulled the card with Willie’s number. I knew I couldn’t buy it without him on board. He answered on the first ring, and I told him I’d open it if he’d work for me. His only reply was, ‘When do I start?’ Great guy, super nice. He worked for me until I sold it to Bob.”
This was said of longtime employee and Chief Oyster Shucker Willie Brown, who passed away Friday, Dec. 1, at the age of 70. He worked for Wintzell’s for 47 years, hired by J. Oliver Wintzell in November 1970. Of course the Wintzell family has been shaken by the news of losing what most consider its most important member.
For me, growing up in Laurel, Mississippi, made Wintzell’s seem otherworldly. I was a kid almost two hours from the coast, so I didn’t get half shells very often. It may have been a part of what influenced me to move here in 1996. To think that in my first visit sometime during the Reagan administration I was almost certainly served oysters shucked by the same man who shucked them for me so often decades later.
“Many people may not know this, but Willie had a full-time day job [at Seapac Inc., per Omainsky] and he worked nights plus Saturdays at Wintzell’s,” offers David Rasp, owner of Royal Scam and Heroes. “I spent about half my time with him asking questions about the old days with Mr. Wintzell. We spent the rest of the time talking about the old-school work ethic that he epitomized, while he tried to downplay my efforts to put him on a pedestal in that regard.
“To him, work was just something you did with no fanfare, and you were lucky to have the work. I don’t think we are making many men like Willie Brown these days. He will be missed.”
It wasn’t just his prowess with an oyster blade and his work ethic that made Willie Brown a valuable member of the team. Just as valuable was the way he engaged the customers. “I told him as he got older,” says Omainsky, “‘you don’t have to shuck oysters. I’ll pay you to sit there and talk to folks and drink Tanqueray or iced tea or whatever you want.’ He was that important to the customers.”
When asked about the far-reaching effects of Wintzell’s and its importance in our restaurant scene, Omainsky had more to say.
“I meet people from all over the country who say, ‘yeah, I’ve eaten there.’ In some ways now a piece of that has died.”
But the legend will live on.