For nearly 40 years, Balentines Cafeteria served countless Raleigh residents fried chicken and coconut pie with a side of community fellowship. For nearly all that time Milton Haynes helped run the show.
Working his way from floor manager to part owner and vice president, Haynes did everything from pour coffee to oversee a kitchen that turned out as many as 2,000 meals a day.
The restaurant’s central location and reasonably priced, soulful fare served everyone from elected officials to old Raleigh families to blue-collar workers. From the start of his career in the early 1960s, loved ones say, Haynes helped foster the sense of place that ensured Balentines’ role in the community .
Haynes also played pivotal role in preserving a lesser known part of North Carolina history, one that involved his great-grandfather. Chang Bunker was one half of the brotherly duo from which the term “Siamese twin” was derived in the early 19th century. Haynes proudly helped keep their legacy alive in the form of family reunions, contributing items, such as their gold pocket watch, to museum exhibits, and a book published in Siamese in 1848.
Haynes died last month at his home in Mount Airy, not far from where Chang and Eng Bunker are buried.
‘Tough but fair’
Born and raised in Raleigh, Haynes was a member of a state championship basketball team at Broughton High School. After two years’ service in the U.S. Army, he earned a history degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. But it was the hospitality industry that ultimately became his passion.
“I think he was very good at hospitality, in the broadest sense of the term. He liked the service part of the service industry,” said Yorke Haynes, one of his five children.
The customer always came first.
“He’d be out on the floor doing anything for them,” his son said.
Said his daughter, Ann Adam: “He just made them feel like it was a big family of customers. I cannot believe the amount of people who say my dad gave them their first job.”
Many of these folks attended the funeral service for Haynes. Often they were just teens when they worked at Balentines, but the memory of Haynes as a “tough but fair” employer remained strong alongside memories of serving succotash and tomato aspic. His friends and family marveled at his work ethic.
“It’s everything that I judge work ethic on today,” Adam said.
Pride in his lineage
When the decision was made to expand Balentines, Haynes jumped at the chance to head up the Wilmington location of the restaurant for more than a decade. He had always loved the ocean, and he wasted no time buying a boat and teaching his children (or just about anyone) how to scuba dive.
When he wasn’t working or on the water, he enjoyed researching his family history. Haynes was told all along about his interesting lineage, though others among the Bunker’s 1,500 descendants (between them they had 21 children) were not always made to feel this was a detail worth sharing.
Haynes, however, held his Bunker lineage with a deep sense of pride. He was quick to remark that the Bunker brothers were valued not just as a freakish commodity but also as respected businessmen and community members. For conjoined twins from Siam to make a life for themselves in rural North Carolina was no small thing, and Haynes stressed their accomplishments to his family.
“It gave us an appreciation for those less fortunate than us, those struggling with disabilities that we don’t have,” Yorke Haynes said.
It was from that connection to his lineage that Haynes felt compelled to study American Sign Language. It was not uncommon for Chang’s descendants to struggle with their hearing, and Haynes’ grandmother was deaf. In his 40s he began studying the language and made a point after that to hire those with hearing disabilities at Balentines.
“He made the effort to do that even though he didn’t have to,” Adam said.
When Haynes ran into another Bunker descendent, one from the Eng side of the family, they worked together to establish a family reunion that encompassed both sides of the Bunker family tree. The reunion celebrated its 25th anniversary last month.