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Salisbury’s Wink’s Breakfast Bunch remembers John Stegall, one of their own

SALISBURY — Wayne Kennerly never heard about John Stegall’s service during the Vietnam War, especially not the story about his lying on the ground with a stomach wound while the Viet Cong walked through his unit, making sure everyone was dead.

“I didn’t realize he was a war hero until I went to his funeral,” Kennerly said.

Kennerly belonged to two carloads of Salisbury friends who traveled to Stegall’s funeral Jan. 11 in Indian Trail. On display at the service were many of Stegall’s medals, including one of two Purple Hearts he received during his 1966-67 tour as an Army sergeant in Vietnam.

Stegall was a modest man, not the kind to talk about Vietnam much, though Salisbury friends such as Wayne Hayworth and Jim Epting had heard some of the stories.

“He was a great guy,” Kennerly says. “He would do anything for anybody at any time.”

John Stegall died Jan. 7, right in the middle of that big snow, and somehow his obituary never made it in the Salisbury Post. It should have.

Among other things, it would have noted that Stegall served as district manager for Piedmont Natural Gas in Salisbury from 1986 to 2002 before moving to the same job in New Bern. All told, he worked 43 years for the gas company.

The obituary probably would have mentioned his devotion to the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. He had a hand in establishing the chamber’s Leadership Rowan program and recruiting Bob Wright, the former president.

As a longtime industrial recruiter for the N.C. Department of Commerce, Epting knew Stegall played an important role, along with Jim’s brother, Sonny, in bringing Freightliner to Rowan County as part of an industrial developers association.

“He was such a super guy,” Epting says. “He could get along with anyone.”

Epting says Stegall was someone who gave whatever task he was working on 1,000 percent. “He was right there, always ready to go,” he says.

In Salisbury, Stegall also found time to be involved in the Sales and Marketing Club and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. One year, he was in charge of transportation for the NSSA.

Hayworth remembers the fun he and Stegall had picking up well-known sports media personalities such as Bob Costas at the Charlotte airport and driving them to Salisbury.

“John wasn’t about himself,” Hayworth says. “He was a people person, concerned about others.”

A proper obituary would have mentioned, of course, Stegall’s wife, Jean, and their boys, Gordon and Jake, both Salisbury High School graduates. The brothers established a restaurant in Charlotte called Jake’s Good Eats that was featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

John Stegall had a love of golf, hunting, fishing and dogs. One obituary written for John mentioned his “eight granddogs.” And at Indian Trail Baptist Church, Stegall served as a Sunday school teacher and deacon, one of 16 deacons for a congregation that Kennerly says is thousands strong.

“He had 1,500 people at his service, I bet,” Kennerly says.

The most important thing connecting Stegall to Salisbury might have been left out of any obituary. He was a longstanding member — and graduate, you could say — of the Wink’s Bunch, also known as the Wink’s Breakfast Bunch.

Hayworth, Stegall’s right-hand man at Piedmont Natural Gas, says it started as a business breakfast at the old Wink’s restaurant off East Innes Street. The Duke Power and Piedmont Natural Gas managers were there, along with Jim and Sonny Epting and others.

“We had a lot of movers and shakers in the area,” Hayworth says. “We learned what each other were doing and what we could do best. We built real good friendships and contacts by doing that.”

As time went on, plenty of familiar names floated in and out of the morning breakfast gatherings. You showed up when you could, and there always seemed to be a core group that kept it going every morning.

(There was a brief period when the guys met at the old City View Restaurant.)

People such as Kennerly, Gene Auten, Harold Earnhardt, J.C. Ritchie, Freddie Sides, Homer Lucas, Jim West, Jerry Barger, Marshall Bickett, Jay Duke, Charlie Deadwyler, Larry Ford, Richie Kluttz, Bob Somers, John Isenhour, Danny Williams and Jim Linn came to look forward to the breakfast.

Over 30-plus years, a lot of attrition happens. People die. People move with their jobs. Sometimes illness takes over.

But the breakfast still takes place, only now it’s at the “new” Wink’s off Faith Road.

“We’ll have eight to 12 people, not necessarily the same ones,” Kennerly says. “We solve all the world crisis situations there. We talk about sports — whatever topic starts the conversation.”

It was just his way, but Stegall became a favorite among the Wink’s staff and owners.

“Everybody at Wink’s loved him to death,” Kennerly said.

Back in Stegall’s days in Salisbury, the breakfast meetings often led to golf outings, many of which Stegall and Auten would plan.

Around here, they would golf frequently at Corbin Hills, the Warrior and the Country Club of Salisbury, where Stegall was a member. But they also liked to plan trips out of town.

“We golfed a lot,” Kennerly says. “We traveled a lot. It was a lot more fun to go out of town.”

Something else grew out of the Wink’s Bunch — an annual Christmas breakfast in December where all members of the bunch, past and present, show up for a country-style breakfast put together by owner Dwight Martin.

Hayworth remembers Piedmont Natural Gas paying for that first Christmas breakfast, which usually draws 30 or more guys, plus some of the  former Wink’s waitresses who used to put up with them.

The morning also includes door prizes, many of which are gag gifts, and everyone leaves with a gift bag, which Auten always enjoyed handing out.

Auten, who died in 2011, had a knack for keeping in touch with former members of the Wink’s Bunch, including Stegall after he retired to Mint Hill in 2004.

Stegall always came back for the Christmas breakfast, and returning for the 2011 breakfast in particular meant a lot to him. It was the first without Auten.

At that holiday breakfast, Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten, Gene’s son, presented Stegall with an old pitching wedge his father used to keep in his truck for fetching things he couldn’t reach otherwise.

The sheriff said he knew Gene would want Stegall to have it. Stegall cherished it and wouldn’t let go of it the rest of the morning.

Stegall’s service in Vietnam ended up having its toll. He dealt with the aftereffect of having been exposed to Agent Orange. His diabetes led to kidney problems and required dialysis three times a week.

And Stegall had heart valve problems. Hayworth said he received a pig’s valve in 2008 and a calf’s valve in 2016, as his health deteriorated. Stegall was 74 when he died.

Hayworth says his friend was a tough, fair person on the job.

“I learned a lot of good life lessons from him,” Hayworth says. “He helped you grow in your position.”

Driving to his funeral and back to Salisbury on Jan. 11, Stegall’s old friends had plenty of time to talk and think of him and what any proper obituary should have included.

“John was a good one,” Kennerly says.

You can bet it was said many times again over morning coffee at Wink’s.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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