Many Northeast Georgians are familiar with Mary Mac’s Tearoom on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta.
It is one of those iconic restaurants that is as Southern as collards, cornbread, fried green tomatoes, grits and sawmill gravy. It’s a place where natives take their visitors to get their fried food fix or a platter of vintage veggies.
One of its specialties, however, called Gainesville home the past couple of years. Those who over the years dined at Mary Mac’s remember being welcomed heartily and given a shoulder rub when they settled at their table.
The shoulder rubber was Jo Carter, who had retired to Gainesville a couple of years ago to be near her daughter, Leah Gilbert, who lives in Oakwood.
Jo worked at Mary Mac’s 25 years. She died Nov. 14 at age 79 after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
Jo had been a waitress for various Atlanta restaurants, but found her home at Mary Mac’s. She needed a job, her daughter said, because Jo’s husband was disabled, and she became the breadwinner. Leah was their only child.
John Ferrell became the restaurant’s owner after a series of owners left. Jo was a popular server, always chatting amiably with diners, but her arthritis eventually hindered her from toting trays of food. She managed the dining room for a while, but her ailment caused her to retire. Customers missed her, as did Ferrell, who called her back from her native West Virginia and created a new role for her: official greeter and “Good Will Ambassador.” That suited Jo, Leah said, because her mother didn’t like retirement.
Regulars at the restaurant came to expect good service, good food and the specialty of the house, a cordial greeting along with a shoulder rub from Jo Carter.
Dignitaries are frequent customers at Mary Mac’s, and Jo came to know them all, including former President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, movie stars and several governors. Rep. John Lewis, a regular diner, called Jo “the embodiment of Southern comfort.” Her Gainesville apartment was filled with Mary Mac memorabilia, including photographs with famous people and proclamations praising her service.
Ferrell was quoted as saying of Jo Carter, “She was as authentic as you could get.” Once he had T-shirts printed that read “I got my belly filled and my back rubbed at Mary Mac’s.” The restaurant couldn’t keep them in stock.
Ferrell posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, “Jo knew how to take care of our guests; she was the ultimate professional and worked through arthritic pain the majority of her career, motivated by the love for our guests.”
Mary Mac’s Facebook page was flush with comments from friends and customers whose shoulders she had rubbed and caused laughter and smiles as she flitted from table to table. She was easy to locate in the restaurant, Ferrell said, just by listening for the laughter in one of the dining rooms.
“She made friends wherever she went,” Leah Gilbert says. “We couldn’t go anywhere, to the mall or wherever, that she didn’t run into somebody who recognized her.”
Her mother loved her job, her daughter says. She was a hard worker and taught that ethic to Leah. “She taught me to cook, and I could cook a complete supper when I was little,” she said. Leah also had to clean house, do the dishes and other chores. “I resented that as a kid,” Leah said, “but later on I realized it helped me.”
Jo’s Gainesville home was Myrtle Terrace Apartments on Myrtle Street. “She knew everybody there, and they loved her,” her daughter said.
Essie Jo Carter was born in Buck Fork, W.Va., and had lived in midtown Atlanta since the early 1960s. She loved her native state, her daughter said, and her ashes will be spread on the top of a West Virginia mountain where she was born.
Mary Mac’s Tearoom was named after one of its several owners over the years, Mary McKinsey. It wasn’t really a tearoom; it was just called that when it first opened in the mid-1940s when the term was applied to numerous eating places in Atlanta.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. whose column appears Sundays; e-mail.