GREENBACK — “Greenback people’s hard to beat,” says 90-year-old Jean Burnett, “Miss Jean,” to everyone she meets, as she sips her coffee at the Greenback Drug Store & Diner.
Regulars at the brick eatery, with large picture windows in the front, will hear her say these words, or some variation, several times when she comes for breakfast and lunch, usually six days a week.
Miss Jean, no more than 5 feet tall, with silvery, short hair and bangs, shuffles quickly through the door, making her way to the fourth red-and-white-checkered table from the entrance. This is her table.
If someone else is sitting there, “She don’t like it,” says Tammy Tallet, the owner.
Accompanying her is Ronnie Goodwin, her nephew and full-time caretaker now that dementia prevents her from living on her own.
Miss Jean is always greeted by her second family, the grill cook and waitresses, as well as regular customers. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen ya, Jeannie.” “How’s everything been going?” They often surround her table to say hello.
Her reaction is usually to respond with a wave or a thin smile and proceed to explain why she’s there: to eat. She doesn’t have to place an order. The staff knows what she wants. For breakfast, it’s always biscuits and gravy, a side of scrambled eggs and a mug of black coffee that she grips with both hands.
“I’ve drunk coffee ever since I was that high.” Miss Jean said. She used her ring-covered hand (nine between the two hands) to indicate the size of a young child.
When breakfast is served, she gets to work, cleaning her plate. Her appetite isn’t what it used to be, but she still appreciates a good, homecooked meal. At one time, she also enjoyed serving a good meal. Twice in her life, she worked at the diner that is now her home away from home. As a teenager at Greenback High School, she made milkshakes and dipped cones in chocolate every day after school.
The owner at the time, Bob Cook, basically saw her in the diner and offered a command. “He said you get over there, Jean. I need you to dip that ice cream,” Miss Jean remembered.
She returned to the diner in her 30s to work full time for several years.
The restaurant, which opened in 1923, which features eclectic décor of Greenback High School and University of Tennessee memorabilia, candid photos of past owners, framed articles about the restaurant and American flags, is just down the road from Miss Jean’s childhood home.
She loves Greenback.
“I guess the best thing is really the people and the … and the drug store eatin’,” Miss Jean said with a gentle laugh.
About four years ago, Burnett’s family noticed symptoms of dementia. They knew what to look for because Miss Jean’s younger sister, Ernestine “Ernie” Dilbon, died from Alzheimer’s in May 2016. After Miss Jean broke her hip nearly three years ago, Goodwin stepped up to be her primary caretaker. He moved into her home — the same home in which “all five of us kids was born in,” she said.
Her recollections of working at Greenback Drug Store & Diner are shared not as memories, but as fresh experiences — as if they occurred yesterday. Sometimes it’s hard for her to distinguish between events that happened five-plus decades ago and today. Sometimes, keeping memories organized according to the chronology of her life is like trying to hold a handful of sand without losing a grain. Things get foggy.
“I’ve worked here ever since I was a teenager,” Miss Jean says.
The waitresses go along with her. Even when Miss Jean recently turned in her two weeks’ notice, they still went along, knowing they could expect to see her every day.
Even Tallet, who has owned the Greenback Drug Store & Diner for less than two years, has a great appreciation for Miss Jean and her dedication to the town. “She’s one of us; she’s been here longer than we have,” Tallet says.
This community exemplifies Southern hospitality and care as it rallies around Miss Jean and her family. “I don’t know of a lot of places, ya know, that would do this … take care of her like that,” says Goodwin, her nephew.
Even one of the youngest members of the diner’s staff has bonded with the older woman.
“I don’t think it would really be the same without her. Every time she comes in, she has a smile on her face. She cheers everybody up. I think that it’s safe to say that she really is just like a walking piece of history in the town,” Hannah Jones says.
“Greenback people are fine people, if I do say so,” Miss Jean says.
Morgan Brantley, Brandon Casteel and Abigail Crew are Middle Tennessee State University journalism students. They are in Blount County as part of a feature writing class called The Road Trip Class.