GOLDSBORO — After 50 years, Wilberdean Shirley still slow-cooks his pork over oak coals, letting the grease drip over the wood, pampering the meat inside a red-brick shed so hot and choked with hog-smoke that stepping outside into 95-degree heat feels like a blast of air-conditioning.
And after a career spent serving barbecue to overall-clad tobacco farmers, country lawyers in seersuckers, school board candidates, would-be governors and the joint chiefs of staff, he still shows up for work at 7 a.m. feeling blessed to be anywhere at age 82.
Its usually crowded at Wilbers, so youd hardly blink at the near-capacity crowd that turned out for the restaurants 50th birthday Tuesday. Even when Gov. Bev Perdue arrived, Shirley gave her the hug hed give any old friend.
You see how Im dressed, he said, gesturing to his bluejeans. I dont get too high and mighty about things. Ive met two presidents and fed them. I try to stay on the same keel.
Shirley opened Wilbers in 1962 with 11 employees, a number that has since jumped to 85. Among those workers, youll still find Leamon Parks tending the pork after 32 years, shoveling the coals that flavor Wilbers cue.
Hot, isnt it? he asked, showing off a golden-brown hog. These are done. You think its hot now, wait till it gets cooking.
In a world where restaurants fold overnight, where folksy traditions and family recipes get chucked out the window for corporate formulas, Wilbers endures by doing exactly the same thing every day for five decades.
A fellow come here one day offering to sell me a gas cooker, Shirley said. I told him Id appreciate him going around back so my customers wouldnt see him.
In a state where barbecue transcends dinner, rising almost but not quite to the importance of communion, Wilbers makes everyones top-10 list, often taking the top spot. Sitting on U.S. 70, on the east side of Goldsboro, an easy stop on the road to the beach, its pork has made its way into the pages of The New York Times.
Inside, you can see the gray hat with the navy-blue band mounted on the wall where longtime patron, local barber Raymond Howell, ate his lunches before dying in 2009. Framed pictures of patrons, famous and non-famous, grace the walls along with Shirleys Korean War uniform. Whole generations of airmen have found sustenance at Wilbers.
You can see Republican and Democrat and independent, and some who maybe dont know what they are, all enjoying the fellowship and the barbecue, said Bill Garner, pastor at New Hope Friends Church in Goldsboro. They may have some disagreements between mouthfuls. Weve seen that before.
Perdue told the birthday celebration crowd about a visit she made to the Pentagon, making the case for North Carolina military bases before the nations top brass, giving avid praise for Goldsboros Seymour Johnson Air Base.
An admiral looked at her and said, If all your bases did what they do at Seymour Johnson, nobody would ever have to worry. They give us free barbecue.
That may have saved the base, Shirley joked.
The governor noted, though, that this policy doesnt extend to everyone. You dont run a family restaurant for 50 years by giving everything away.
I asked him if it was free today, Perdue said. He said, No, Bev.