Wineka column: Social networking, the old-fashioned way

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 7, 2011

SALISBURY — Forget Facebook or Twitter. The real social networking — the way it should be — happens every morning when “The Wink’s Bunch” gets together for breakfast.
For 25 years, men from various walks of life have been gathering at Wink’s Barbecue on Faith Road, doing what men normally do at breakfast — telling lies, bragging about their children and grandchildren, creating headaches for the waitresses, checking on everybody’s health and ribbing the daylights out of each other.
That’s on a slow day.
And every December, they set aside a breakfast to celebrate the holidays. While on most mornings 10 to 12 guys might gather at one of the long tables in the side dining room, the Christmas breakfast calls out to all members of The Wink’s Bunch — past and present.
Wednesday, the breakfast attracted almost 30 for a special country-style breakfast put together as always by owner Dwight Martin. The diners passed around plates heaped with country ham, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, grits and gravy. It was simply too much food to shovel in around the conversation.
This year’s Christmas breakfast missed, however, a key player — Gene Auten, who died in early July.
Auten, father of Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten, probably represented the heart and soul of The Wink’s Bunch, and it was important to men such as John Stegall, Jim Epting and Wayne Kennerly that the Christmas breakfast keep going as a way to honor Auten’s memory.
Jim Epting tossed out the paper gift bags Wednesday morning — something Gene Auten liked to do every year.
“Gene would make sure everyone got a ticket, and people didn’t leave without having something,” car dealer Freddie Sides said.
Auten also was the guy always checking up on fellow members of The Wink’s Bunch.
The night before his death, Auten and Epting made plans for the next day to visit old friends Horace Billings in Charlotte and Stegall, who now lives in Mint Hill. The men who gathered for breakfast the following morning at Wink’s couldn’t believe it when they heard the 80-year-old Auten had died overnight in his sleep.
Returning for the Christmas breakfast means a lot to Stegall, former district manager in Salisbury for Piedmont Natural Gas. Stegall, Auten, Jim Epting, Sonny Epting and a few others first started meeting for breakfast after Stegall arrived from Lenoir in 1986.
Stegall said he learned early that a great way of getting to know people was over coffee. The informal group met initially at the old City View restaurant, then moved to Wink’s former East Innes Street location. The group grew out of business connections and golf outings to local courses such as Corbin Hills, the Country Club and, later, the Warrior.
Some of the guys also signed up for golf trips to the beach and mountains.
“You don’t realize just how close you get to people,” Stegall said of his 16 years in Salisbury.
When he was alive, Post columnist Homer Lucas sometimes dropped in on this breakfast group and wrote about the conversations.
Stegall initiated the Christmas breakfast, which included the giveaways — many of them of the gag-gift variety.
When Stegall left in 2003 for a new district manager’s position in New Bern, Auten, Epting and Kennerly took over the holiday tradition. Stegall kept coming back for the event.
“I guess I’ve made just about every one of them,” he said.
Recent years have been tough physically for Stegall, a Vietnam War hero who was affected by Agent Orange and has been dealing with diabetes, forcing him to be on dialysis three times a week. But he delights in seeing his old friends doing well.
“What’s amazing is how well these guys are doing — and we’re getting up there,” Stegall said.
Kennerly likes to describe The Wink’s Bunch as a diverse group. Wednesday’s crowd included Sheriff Kevin Auten, County Manager Gary Page, District Court Judge Marshall Bickett, former Rockwell Mayor Harold Earnhardt, pharmacist Charlie Deadwyler, former Chamber of Commerce executive Bill Shives and familiar names such as Jerry Barger, Jim West, Jay Duke and J.C. Ritchie.
Stegall’s friends from his Piedmont Natural Gas days also were there, including Wayne Hayworth, now retired, and current District Manager Teresa Von Cannon.
Several of the regular “Bunch” guys, such as retired Judge Larry Ford and Richard Kluttz, usually the first guy who arrives in the mornings, couldn’t make the Christmas shindig.
The people who deserve medals for putting up with The Wink’s Bunch all these years are, of course, the waitresses.
“No, I fit right in,” protested Brenda Peacock, who has worked at Wink’s 32 years, as has Debra Hamrick.
Others who put up with the Bunch daily include Audrey Hellard and Tanya Bean.
“I enjoy it, I have a blast,” Bean said.
Hellard sometimes makes her special lemon pound cake for the regulars. “I like waiting on these guys,” she said.
Hamrick dressed for the special Wednesday breakfast in her usual holiday shirt.
“My shirt’s 25 years old — I’ve only worn it 25 times,” she said.
Before he left for the office Wednesday, Sheriff Auten presented Stegall with an old pitching wedge his father used to keep in his truck for fetching things he couldn’t quite reach. He knew his father would want Stegall to have it.
Stegall kept a good grip on the club the rest of the morning.
Some things you just hold tight.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@