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It is a flurry of activity in the kitchen of Parker’s Barbecue.
Cooks, plate preparers, wait staff, cashiers and managers busily move platters of pork barbecue, chicken and seafood.
In the center of it all, 83-year-old Johnny “June” Brunson pulls down an order from the to-go window and reads it.
Brunson raises one finger of his plastic-gloved hand and makes a crystal-clear declaration in the king’s English.
“One dozen livers.”
In moments, Brunson is plating the freshly fried order, bagging it and sending it out for the customer.
Brunson is a living legend at Parker’s, which opened its doors in 1946 in Wilson.
“I started Sept. 5, 1950. That’s 68 years so far,” Brunson said. “In September it will be 69 years. If I was an author, I could write a book about the things that have happened around here. I’ve see a lot in 68 years.”
His mother worked at Parker’s Motel, formerly Rouse’s Motor Court, which adjoined the restaurant property and was purchased in 1949 by the Parker family.
“I was about 14 years old then. I worked both places,” Brunson said. “Over here, over there, a little bit of everything. I came to help her and I came from there to here.”
When his mother got sick, he went full-time to support the family, all while going to Darden High School.
“I had to cook the pigs, slaw, potatoes, Brunswick stew, a little bit of everything,” Brunson said. “I did chicken. I cooked that for 50 years, chicken, shrimp, livers, oysters, and fish all that, cornbread, all that combined.”
He learned how to cook from the business’ original owners — Ralph Parker, Graham Parker and Henry Brewer.
“All of the original boss men and all of the original help is gone, except me. I’ve been blessed, I guess,” Brunson said.
‘I’M NOT A JUNIOR’
Brunson is a Wilson native who was born Nov. 19, 1935.
He grew up on Wainwright Avenue where, as a child, he picked up the nickname “June.”
“I’m not a junior,” Brunson said. “They have got it on my driver’s license. I’m a “junior” some days and other days I’m not. My name is Johnny and growing up, then called me June and that just stuck. They call me Johnny ‘June’ Brunson.”
Brunson has been married twice. He had four daughters with his first wife Dorothy during their 22-year marriage.
His second wife Tina had a son and a daughter.
Brunson met Tina at Parker’s, where she worked for a decade.
“On June 7, we’ve been married 39 years. She’s my everything,” Brunson said of Tina.
“He’s a great man,” Tina Brunson said. “I wouldn’t take a million trillion for him.”
Johnny Brunson has nine grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
There was a time early in Brunson’s life that he liked to take a drink But it has been nearly 35 years since Brunson had one.
Sitting in the parking lot of Parker’s at 9:15 p.m on Nov. 7, 1984, Brunson unscrewed the top of a half-gallon of Smirnoff vodka.
Brunson tool a whiff of the spirituous liquor, decided he didn’t like how it smelled, and never took another drink.
“I’ve got the bottle at home right now,” Brunson said. “I won’t take any of it and I won’t throw it away. I want to see what God took away from me and where he brought me from.”
Brunson said it was hard kicking that habit, especially around the holidays the month after he quit.
“That Christmas, everybody around was drinking and having a party,” Brunson said. “I didn’t do any of that. Didn’t drink.”
Brunson said he couldn’t have done it without God.
“It wasn’t me. It was Him,” Brunson said.
He kept the bottle in the closet of his Merrick Street home as a reminder.
About 30 years ago, he and Tina moved to a new house on Park Avenue.
“I moved and carried that bottle with me,” Brunson said.
The brown paper bag and the tax-paid liquor stamp have gone missing, but the message in the bottle is not lost on Brunson, who is rock solid in his sobriety.
Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, if you were African-American, you had to go around back to get your meal at Parker’s.
That hasn’t been the case for many years, and Brunson said that’s an improvement.
“It feels better now. Everybody is one,” Brunson said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Everybody is one.”
Brunson is working part-time now, but back in the day, he used to keep a schedule where he worked nine days straight, 10 or 12 hours a day.
These days, Parker’s buys the corn sticks served in the restaurant.
“Back then, we cooked it at night, so it will be ready the next day. And when the cornbread man didn’t do it, I would take over and do it,” Brunson said. “He might start at 7 or 8 p.m. and cook all night.”
When that happened, Brunson would continue on with his regular shift the next day, which essentially meant he was pulling all-nighters.
“Somebody had to do it,” Brunson said.
Kevin Lamm, one of the owners of Parker’s, said Brunson has been around so long and knows so much that everybody listens to what he has to say.
“Mr. June has cooked many a piece of chicken,” Lamm said. “It’s very good. June has done a little bit of all of it out here, so he knows this place backwards and forwards. We don’t mess with him because he knows what to do. I respect him. He’s been there so long he knows what to do. I look up to him on that stuff. It’s hard to tell a man that’s been here that long. We come in here way after he was here, so he knows it. He’s the man.”
Tommy Horne, a fry cook, worked alongside Brunson for years.
“I learned a lot from Mr. June,” Horne said. “Him and Ralph Parker are the ones that taught me how to cook.”
Horne said Brunson is kind in the way he delivers suggestions.
“He’s a real gentleman about it. He said ‘I can teach you, but it’s up to you to learn,’” Horne said.
“I gave a lot of advice,” Brunson said. “I don’t know if they took it or not. I just show them and tell them about it. Some of them think they know more than you.”
Brunson stopped frying full-time in 2009. Horne now tends to the dozen fryers running simultaneously in the kitchen.
“We have 12 in here and 10 more out back,”Horne said. “We have to use them on weekends, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and holidays.”
The heat from the fryers and stoves radiates throughout the kitchen.
“But in July and August it’s really hot,” Brunson said.
Brunson remembers when Ralston Purina opened its plant in 1954 and hired Parker’s to cater a grand-opening celebration.
The restaurant cooked 103 pigs and served 17,000 plates.
“I think it was 75 cents a plate, barbecue, slaw and bread. It took two 18-wheelers to take the food out to them,” Brunson said. “Back then, we cooked with wood. We had to close down the restaurant that afternoon. Didn’t have nothing to sell. That’s what put Parker’s on the map, Purina.”
Parker’s has four firepits to cook pigs.
“One time one of the pits caught on fire,” Brunson said. “The fat got into the fire. I don’t think it closed the place down. We still operated.”
Brunson said he’s been blessed to work with a lot of nice coworkers.
“Everybody got along. I have been blessed that way,” Brunson said. “Most of it was good. Just to be able to have a job and work this long, My bosses have been good. They would do me favors and I would do them favors. It all worked out. We’re blessed.”
Brunson said he plans to continue working as long as he has good health. Brunson is working part-time about three days a week now.
“I don’t want to quit,” Brunson said. “I would probably get sick if I did, then as long as I feel good, I’ll do it.”