Working Behind the Scenes

Shirley Avis works nearly 60 hours a week between her two jobs and covers nearly 250 miles of road commuting to work each week.

By Cat Lovell and Paul King | 10/18/2010

You may have never seen her, but if you’re a Beckley resident, 59-year-old Shirley Avis has most likely touched your life in some way. She works nearly 60 hours a week between her two jobs and covers nearly 250 miles of road commuting to work each week.

Shirley Avis is a 38-year veteran at Beckley’s landmark restaurant, the King Tut Drive-In. Regular customers know all of the curb girls and crave the drive-in’s homemade recipes, but they might not know about the woman in the cramped corner of the kitchen who bakes the bread.

Avis, a self-proclaimed “know-it-all”, started working at King Tut earning minimum wage at $1.35 an hour in 1972. Her first boss, John McKay told her he would increase wages by a quarter for every position she learned, so she learned every position. Ownership has passed down to John’s sons, David and Jeff, but Avis is still there.

When Avis was in eleventh grade, she got married and dropped out of school. At the time, Avis believed that making money was more important than an education. In the months following her marriage, she and her husband moved to both Maryland and Florida. In Maryland, Avis worked in a shoe factory. In Florida, she found employment as a seamstress. But the two could not stay away from the mountains of West Virginia.

When Avis was first married, she promised her mother that she would finish school. Fifteen years later, she completed her GED so that she could be employed with the Board of Education.

Today, Avis is also a kindergarten aide at Divide Elementary School, located in Fayette County. Everyone there calls her Ms. Shirley. In 1990, volunteers were needed in her youngest son, James’, kindergarten class. It was there that Avis discovered her passion for education and her love of working with students. Because there were so many trained aides, Avis wasn’t hired for a few more years. But her experience at King Tut allowed her to become a substitute cook within the school system, and in 1996, she was hired as a preschool aide at Divide and Montgomery Schools.

“I’ve got a talent for kids. If you give them love, a smile, and a wink, they’ll do anything for you,” says Avis.

It’s no secret that Avis has a gift with children. She assists in a class of 20 students. She has several responsibilities including reading stories, preparing the assignments for students’ homework, and helping to teach. A favorite activity with the kids is to sing and dance rhymes that Avis has written.

“Ms. Shirley is kind-hearted, loves the children and is willing to do everything. She never says no,” says Mrs. Sandra Coleman, a kindergarten teacher at Divide Elementary School with over 30 years teaching experience.

At the close of the school day, Avis walks the students out to the bus. She ensures that all of the kids are safely on their way home. “I love school so much, but you do get mentally tired,” Avis says.

After all the students have left, Avis is exhausted. Her work at Divide Elementary School makes her mentally tired and her work at King Tut makes her physically tired. Working two jobs is not easy, and Avis has always been the sole source of income for her family. “I barely make ends meet,” she says.

She has an innate passion for poetry, but it’s difficult for her to find time to sit down and write. Instead, her inspiration comes to her while she is commuting from home to work either the 15 miles to Divide Elementary School or the 20 miles to Piney View to see her mother before she heads to King Tut. “That’s why I like my long drives. They come and I have to pull off side the road and write them down real fast,” says Avis about her poetry.

She mainly writes about her mother, and nature, and she creates rhymes to use with the kids in the classroom.

Every weekend, Avis is late to work. She has been late for her job at the King Tut Drive-In for the past 38 years. All of her co-workers know that Avis has been delayed by her 79-year old mother, whom she visits every weekend before arriving at the King Tut Drive-In. Avis is very close to her mother, who helped her care for her three boys while she was working.

When Avis first arrives at King Tut on the weekends, she makes a cup of strong tea, putting two teabags in a 16-ounce Styrofoam cup then microwaving it to the perfect temperature. She adds a fourth of a cup of sugar and sips on that cup all day long. The caffeine lasts her through her eight-hour shift.

Though she has worked nearly every position from front counter to grill cook at the King Tut Drive-In, Avis now only has time for one position on the weekends, one that she’s mastered and feels no one else could replicate. She makes the bread.

“It’s my own recipe. I told everybody I can’t teach them by telling them what to do. They have to watch me, and I have to show them the touch and feel,” Avis said.

No written recipe is used. Avis doesn’t use measuring cups or spoons, and her method is solely determined by touch and texture. She’s perfected this form of art for the last seven years. “Everybody else brags on my bread. It’s a little bit sweet, and if you don’t like sweet bread you won’t like it as much,” says Avis.

She works quickly to make at least 225 rolls and loaves of bread before the dinner rush. Her loaves need to last the entire week. Because Avis is the only one who makes bread, she tries to keep one week ahead just in case she gets sick. Her 5-inch, golden brown loaves accompany all of the King Tut dinners. All of the meatloaf sandwiches, barbeque sandwiches, and the King burgers that everyone knows and loves are served on Avis’s 5-inch round buns.

“The best part would be if I had more time, but I have to use a little more yeast, so I can make it in less time,” says Avis.

Space is tight in the kitchen. Avis places the pans of dough to rise on every available surface, on top of the oven, the mixer, and stacked on top of the pans cooking on the stove. Avis and her co-workers trade laughter and jokes as they try to stay out of each other’s way.

“This is like a family, it’s always been a family, so I really enjoy it. I think I’m like the mother of the family now, I’ve been here and just been like everyone’s mother is what I feel like.” When Avis’ first son, Melvin, was two years, old she walked into King Tut looking for a job. She walked out with her first position there. It was in the pizza room. Now Melvin is 40, George is 35, and James is 25. All three men are fathers and Avis has a total of 6 grandchildren. The youngest was born just a few weeks ago.

“I got a 2-week-old grandson and a 3-and-a-half-year old grand-daughter, and I would like to stay home with them, but I don’t get to spend too much time with them, says Avis. Avis doesn’t have as much time with her grandchildren as she would like, but she is convinced that she would not live too long if she had to retire.

“I enjoy my work at King Tut and I enjoy my work at school. That’s something not too many people can say.”
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    Shirley Avis loves both of her jobs, and she writes a little poetry on the side.

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