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South End's J&M Grill sizzles on without Jack

August 27, 2000

South End's J&M Grill sizzles on without Jack



By ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer


It's not quite the same in the South End restaurant which Jack and Mae Etta McAfee opened nearly 30 years ago.

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Patrons still crowd into the J&M Grill at 816 S. Potomac Street in Hagerstown for their favorite home-cooked meals. The phone rings off the hook for lunchtime carry-out orders. The establishment's atmosphere is just as cozy.

But Jack McAfee is gone.

A 1992 traffic accident left the gruff, robust and tattooed McAfee unable to run his business, and several major strokes in recent years have rendered him helpless, said Mae Etta McAfee, 57.

The couple's daughter, Jackie McAfee, hustles to keep the family business alive in her father's absence.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done. They're some tall shoes to fill," she said. "I try, but I'll never be my daddy. (The customers) love me, but they really love my father."

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It was Jack McAfee's dream to own his own restaurant, his wife said.

"We wanted to cater to the everyday working people. The working guys, they like home cookin'. They don't like all that fancy stuff," Mae Etta McAfee said. "We give 'em good meals at a good price."

The restaurant's regulars for years have flocked to the grill for menu items such as Spam and eggs and old fashioned hominy that "pops all over the grill so much you gotta put a lid on it," she said.

And with years of restaurant experience under his belt, Jack McAfee was at home working that grill, his wife said.

He could crack four eggs with one hand at once into the frying pan, she said.

He refused to write down his recipes or customers' orders, but he rarely made mistakes in his food preparation, she added.

And he never cried when he cut onions, said the McAfees' granddaughter, Helena Harrell.

McAfee would open his restaurant before 4 a.m. to feed the entertainers from a Martinsburg, W.Va., nightclub, his wife said.

Area truckers often made the grill their first stop of the day, and the trains that used to traverse the tracks behind the restaurant screeched to a halt there so conductors could grab a quick bite to eat, Mae Etta McAfee said.

When not at the grill, Jack McAfee could be found in his spot at the rear table, barking greetings at customers, giving orders and dispensing legal advice, his wife said.

He would laugh at the written copies of crude jokes and unusual quotes that his friends toted to his table, she said.

"He was a tough old fella, always stompin' around and carrying on," said Hagerstown resident Charles Bender, who's been eating at the J&M Grill for 20 years.

He looked at Mae Etta McAfee sitting in her husband's old spot.

"How's old Jack doing?" Bender asked.

Her husband can no longer walk, has trouble communicating, and is a fraction of the large man he used to be, Mae Etta McAfee said.

"I made God a promise that if He let Jack live I'd take care of him," she said, gazing at an aging photograph of the couple at their table. "He's still with us, but he's not the same. I really miss him."

Jack McAfee no longer rules his restaurant from the table at the back of the room. He isn't there to read his patrons' jokes or give them legal advice.

Yet loyal customers continue to help keep Jack's dream afloat, and share their lives with him, Mae Etta McAfee said.

"We're so thankful for our regular customers," she said.

They often bring her stories and homemade cakes and produce from their gardens to take to her husband's bedside, she said.

"It's unreal."

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