A cuppa java for some GI Joes
By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
MOORESVILLE ó Forty-five minutes is a long way to drive for a cup of coffee.
The men who come to Richard’s Coffee Shop on Main Street every Thursday don’t think so.
The spot is also a veterans museum, and if you visit on any given Thursday, you’ll find it packed wall to wall with veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
They share free coffee and conversation, and most of all, camaraderie.
It draws vets from Salisbury, China Grove, Mooresville, Denver, Davidson ó and beyond.
The shop was the brainchild of Richard Warren, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who originally opened it a couple of blocks away in 1995.
Richard died suddenly May 3.
Fortunately, a nonprofit group, Welcome Home Veterans, had been formed. Members took over the coffee shop, renaming it in Richard’s honor.
“Richard was very patriotic,” says Lonnie Long, the group’s president.
He notes that more than 6,000 veterans have come through the doors since the shop opened.
The new place had its “soft opening” on July 4 ó and 300 veterans attended, solely on word of mouth, Lonnie says. “We’ve been open ever since.”
The coffee shop at 128 S. Main St. is open 8 a.m-3 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.
“Every Thursday and Saturday no matter how early I show up there are folks waiting to get into the shop,” Lonnie says.
Ralph Dagenhart, a board member, manages the shop. Cheryl Ann Leiner works for tips, functioning as a one-woman USO. She’s always ready with a hug, a smile, a kind word. The men adore her.
“She makes everyone feel loved and welcome,” says Lonnie, who lives in Davidson.
The coffee shop is open to the public and is preparing to expand its offerings besides coffee and ready-made snacks. Board members also want to reach out to JROTC classes, middle school and high school history classes and families of deployed service members.
Richard felt like it never mattered whether you served overseas in active combat or stateside.
The bottom line was that you served, and you served proudly.
John Kirkman is a retired mail carrier who lives in the Atwell community, as does Ray Adams.
John served in the Navy from 1968 to 1972. John volunteers here and at Bobby Mault’s Price of Freedom Museum at the former Patterson School.
“Just look at their faces,” John says of the men around him. “They’re smiling, they’re talking.”
Those most revered are the group of World War II vets ó there are 15 when they’re all present, according to Cheryl Ann.
“They looked out for me before I was even thought of,” she says.
Harry Hart, 95, of Mooresville is one of the group’s senior members, as is J.D. Chamberlain, also of Mooresville, 91.
Harry’s uncle, killed in World War I, was Samuel Hart, for whom the local Hart American Legion Post is named.
Herb Knox, 85, of Cornelius is a WWII veteran who received the Distinguished Service Cross. He fought in Germany.
Len McCutcheon, 91, of Denver drives 17 miles to have coffee. Along with him for the ride every Thursday is Richard Keenan. They met through Richard’s daughter, who is Len’s neighbor.
Richard was flying in the ball turret, in the belly of a B-24, when it was shot down over Germany in 1944. You had to be small, says Richard, who at that time was 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 120.
That was his 25th mission. With the help of the Russians ó who incidentally shot down the plane because they thought it was German ó he made it back to his base in Italy. He flew 25 more missions and then headed for home ó if you completed 50 missions, you were free.
“Life is nothing but stories,” says Richard, who turns 84 in November.
Darryel Connell of Denver, who served in Vietnam, asks Richard and other vets to sign a book on military history.
He made it home without a scratch.
“I’m one lucky SOB to be standing here talking to you,” he says.
He’s starstruck by the older guys.
“I don’t give a damn about the coffee,” Len says. “It’s the people I deal with here.”
More often than not, he comes on Saturday for the gospel and bluegrass music.
“If you don’t come to hear the music on Saturday,” he says, “you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Len pats Herb’s shoulder. “These are my friends. We don’t really discuss the war ó just general conversation.”
It’s also a gathering place for soldiers currently serving.
“They get a certain amount of strength from us,” says Herb, standing up a bit taller. “There are a lot of tears shed. I think people care, and they want to convey that to us.
“It’s a soft place to fall.”
On the other hand, there’s a lot of “plain bull” to accompany the “heavy thinking,” Herb says. “It’s a great crowd that comes in here.”
Larry Huggins, a retired Air Force general, drives 45 minutes from Newton every week.
“This is the real deal,” he says. “This is the only place for veterans that I feel comfortable.”
He just donated his F-105 flight helmet to the memorabilia collection.
The walls are filled with flags, photographs, certificates, mugs, model planes, uniforms ó about anything relating to military service.
A giant photograph of Richard Warren watches over it all. Beneath it is a display of medals and ribbons. Richard flew a Huey in Vietnam, what Lonnie calls the workhorse of that war.
Allen Evans of Davidson lives five houses down from Lonnie.
“People will talk about military service here that they haven’t talked about with their friends or family,” says Allen, who was part of a Navy jet crew in Vietnam. “Richard was so sincere. It was easy to share.
“I think this is what makes it the success it is.”
Tom Harrell of Salisbury agrees.
Tom, 84, served in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. He discovered the coffee shop a dozen years ago, when he went shopping in downtown Mooresville with his wife and daughter.
Tom walked across the street to get a cup of coffee, and met Richard. He’s been going back each Thursday since.
“The biggest thing there is the kind of relationships that are established about the most important part of our collective lives,” Tom says of his friendships with fellow WWII vets.
Stories about the coffee shop haven’t mentioned the therapeutic value of the place, Tom says.
The food’s good, too.
Art Rogers, 83, of Mooresville has started making crumb cakes to go with the coffee. He left Queens, N.Y., in 1950, but he never lost his accent.
“If this goes over good, I’ve got this cheesecake …” he says.
Ron Bliss of Concord is from upstate New York. He was with the Marines from 1957 to 1961. He didn’t see combat, but he likes the fact that a tight-knit group of Marines gathers there each Thursday. Semper Fi.He wants to hear everyone’s stories. All of his officers, he says, served in Korea and World War II, but he never asked them about it.
“Now I have that opportunity,” he says.
He adds, “Richard was the heart of this place, half the reasons I walked in here every Thursday.”
He tears up.
“I didn’t think they could replace him. But they’ve kept his spirit alive.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.