Growing up in Athens, the Varsity’s other hometown


Maybe it’s because it was a much smaller town than Atlanta, but the Varsity played an inordinately large part in the lives of those of us growing up in Athens in the 1950s and ’60s.

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The Varsity’s original location across from the University of Georgia arch put it at ground zero for daily life. And during the years there were two Varsity restaurants in Athens, the large parking lot at the newer drive-in, located in the middle of fraternity-sorority row, became a prime hangout.

It seemed just about everyone went to the Varsity.

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For MiMi DuBose Gudenrath’s family, Sunday night always was Varsity night. “I used to love to get to place the order with my dad,” she recalled. She’s always liked her hot dogs plain, and her father let her use Varsity lingo and order a “naked” dog. “It was the one place I was allowed to say ‘naked’ in public!”

She also remembers when she got dumped by a boyfriend in high school and decided to cry it out at the drive-in Varsity. After a few minutes, a Varsity employee who regularly waited on her family brought her two naked dogs and a Frosted Orange. He patted her on the shoulder and said, “It’s on us. Now, you stop crying and go find some fun.”

Her friend Oby Dupree recalls another time, when she and Gudenrath were 16 and decided to emulate the teenage boys who revved their car engines in the Varsity’s parking lot, looking for someone to race down Broad Street.

Dupree had her boyfriend’s Pontiac LeMans for the weekend “and we revved it up at the Varsity and, sure enough, got some takers.”

During the ensuing race, “It was said we were clocked at over 120 miles per hour. We each had a Varsity Orange to celebrate.”

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Betz Lowery remembers getting curb service at the new Varsity, “and I managed to hide the glass with the football player kicking it under the seat, and took it home with me. I coveted that glass for years.”

When my buddy Richard and I attended orientation for our freshman year at UGA, we figured we ought to introduce all the newcomers to the beloved “Greasy V.” So, we made “a Varsity run” and brought back several boxes of chili dogs to share at an evening mixer.

The Varsity’s TV rooms were a natural gathering spot. I’d spend lunchtime between classes in the old Varsity, watching “Hollywood Squares” while munching on a chili dog. And, Mindy Bacon remembers, when she had a summer job in downtown Athens in 1973, “I would take my lunch hour and go to the Varsity and sit and watch the Watergate hearings on the TV.”

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Two other major draws for UGA students at the Varsity: It took (and cashed) checks, and it sold beer (a practice since dropped).

Recalled Steve Oney: “The downtown Varsity sold ice cold cans from a glass-topped refrigerated case by the counter. I’m pretty sure it was the closest spot to campus where you could get (a beer). Some evenings, I’d have a beer and a hot dog for dinner while reading the newspaper I’d just bought at Barnett’s,” a newsstand next door.

“I always loved that street corner,” Oney said. “It embodied the town and gown aspect of Athens. Behind the arch was academia. On the other side, beer and newspapers.”

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His college roommate, Mike Webb, remembers “the Varsity kept me alive” when living in a dorm on a shoestring budget, because “they would allow me to write a check, and the food was cheap. I remember the menu featured a killer ham salad sandwich plate” piled high with potato chips.

One day in 1974, when the Varsity still sold beer, journalism student Bill Berryman ran into the legendary Hunter S. Thompson of Rolling Stone magazine on campus, where Teddy Kennedy was speaking. Thompson asked where he could get something to drink, even though it was 10:30 on a Saturday morning.

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Berryman directed him to the Varsity across from the Arch, “which, for some reason, opened around 8 in the morning but never offered breakfast — just the same rings, dogs and burgers.” Later, Berryman saw Thompson at Kennedy’s press conference, and the famed writer “had brought three or four Varsity beers. … He looked up at me and said, ‘That Varsity’s a weird place, man.’”

Eventually, as the downtown department stores moved out to a mall, business waned at the original Athens Varsity, and the decision was made to close it down.

The final day was Dec. 20, 1978, and I drove over from Atlanta to meet my dad, and my brothers Jon and Tim, for the somber occasion. We ordered our meals and watched as former UGA Dean of Men William Tate, one of Athens’ most celebrated citizens, was photographed downing a hamburger and Coke as the official “last” meal served at the downtown Varsity.

It wasn’t actually the last meal, though. Once the ceremony with Tate was finished, I went back up to the counter to see if I could get something to take home to my wife, Leslie. There was only one counter position still open, and the guy took my order. Yes, I got the final chili dog served at the original Athens Varsity.

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As the years went on, I introduced my son and daughter to the Varsity, and I recall them getting all excited by one of the counter clerks giving them their very own paper Varsity cap.

It’s been a rite of passage for kids in Athens and Atlanta for generations. Darrell Huckaby took his grandson to his first UGA basketball game last year and, naturally, they stopped by the Varsity.

“He came home with a paper hat, and ketchup and mustard all over his face and his shirt, and now he begs to go back every time we are anywhere near,” Huckaby said.

Another generation of Varsity patrons is born.

Ironically, although the downtown Varsity was more often my hangout when I was growing up, my favorite Varsity memory involves the location that’s still around. It was April 17, 1970, and as a senior at Athens High School, I could go off campus for lunch. This was the day the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft was to try to return to Earth, and so I wound up in one of the packed TV rooms at the Varsity.

As the spacecraft lost radio contact, the TV anchors kept reminding us that NASA had no way of knowing whether the astronauts were successfully re-entering, had bounced back into space, or were burning up.

The normally bustling Varsity grew quiet, as everyone stared intently at the TV screens. Suddenly, a tiny parachute could be seen in the sky! Everyone in the Varsity jumped to their feet, cheering raucously as one.

I think about that day sometimes, when I return to the Athens Varsity, where my kids and brothers and I still dine occasionally. However, our days of doing that might be numbered. The family that owns the Varsity has bought up much of the surrounding block, and there’s widespread speculation they might be considering moving the restaurant out to the suburbs to make room for a new development.

If that comes to pass, I expect the King brothers again will gather on the final day, to bid farewell to a big part of our childhood.

I just hope it doesn’t come to that.

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Read more stories about the Varsity in Athens at Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog: https://billking.livejournal.com/62501.html. He can be reached at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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