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90 things about Pal Barger

  • 9 min to read
90 things about Pal Barger
Pal and Sharon Barger

Here is Pal Barger’s favorite picture, which shows him with his late wife, Sharon.

1) Fred “Pal” Barger was born on Aug. 23, 1930.

2) His parents were Fred and Helen Barger.

3) His parents were high school sweethearts, who called each other “Skoby” as a pet name. Others were soon calling them “Big Skoby” (Fred) and “Little Skoby” (Helen).

4) If “Skoby” meant or stood for something other than “my sweetheart,” no one knows — or they’re not telling.

5) Pal earned his own lifelong nickname when he was treated as a mascot of sorts for a local basketball team, whose players would take turns during games carrying the youngster to the net and holding him up so he could make a shot. They began referring to him as their “Pal” and it stuck.

6) Pal’s parents opened a restaurant in 1946 and named it Skoby’s.

7) In the mid-1950s, Pal briefly opened and operated a Skoby’s in Marion, Virginia.

8) In 1956, when Pal opened his first fast-food restaurant, on Revere Street in downtown Kingsport, it was his mother, “Little Skoby,” who suggested the best choice was to name it Pal’s.

9) Today there are 30 Pal’s Sudden Service restaurants in our region. Of all his business ventures, the success of Pal’s is what makes Pal most proud.

10) Pal’s constant companion these days is Skoby the dog, who hails from Texas and was adopted by Pal and his late wife, Sharon.

11) As a young boy, Pal had a dog named Cody. The dog’s name wasn’t a part of family lore. As an adult, Pal’s son Rick named his own dog Cody.

12) Pal’s grandfather was Kingsport’s first police chief.

13) Pal rhymes with Hal, as in Hal Carmack. Pal and Hal are cousins. Pal credits Hal, a builder and entertainer, with making great contributions to all Pal’s business ventures — from the Pal’s Sudden Service buildings, to the Olde West Dinner Theater, to Skoby’s World.

14) Unlike the Rolling Stones, Pal can get satisfaction: “Making customers happy always motivated me and made me happy. It still does.”

15) But he’s not all work and no play.

16) Pal has a sense of humor. Pal has a sense of humor. Pal has a sense of humor. (His sense of humor, alone, could actually qualify as a dozen things. It’s that strong and well-known. But I’ll just leave it as three and count it as one.)

17) He worked as a carhop at his parents’ restaurant while still in high school, running beer and burgers to cars in the parking lot and out onto Konnarock Road, which was still a gravel road.

18) It wasn’t his first time earning a buck in the food business. As a child, living with his family on Maple Street, he was given his own section in their vegetable garden. When his produce matured, he loaded it in a wagon and pulled it through the neighborhood, peddling it door-to-door.

19) That experience probably came in handy when he became a newspaper carrier for the Kingsport Times News, working both a morning route (65 subscribers) and an afternoon route (135 subscribers). He delivered the morning papers before going to school and the afternoon papers after school. Even at that age he believed in branching out: after the morning route, he’d drop a bundle of newspapers at a major employee gate at Tennessee Eastman Company, leaving a small box for honor-system payment for the then 3-cents-a-copy newspaper. “Most people would just flip in a nickel,” Pal told me earlier this month.

20) When Pal was in his mid-teens, his father had an illness that doctors told his mother probably meant the two Skobys should aim to operate a business from their home for a while. They decided to begin Cherokee Beverage (“The telephone number was 1-6-9-5,” Pal said), delivering beer by the case to local homes. Pal was the delivery driver, in the family’s 1940 Buick, and can still rattle off some names, quantities and prices for some standing orders.

21) Secretly, Pal spent some of his savings from the beverage service to take flying lessons at the old Pierce Airport, which was located on old Highway 81 (now Wilcox Drive), in the area now occupied by the MeadowView Resort, Conference and Convention Center.

22) He didn’t necessarily mean to follow in his parents’ footsteps. His college degree is in accounting.

23) He served in the Air Force for three years.

24) Two key factors he says contributed to his success: attention to details and ... curiosity.

25) Pal is very generous. Sometimes his generosity is known. Other times it is done quietly.

26) His known acts of philanthropy have led to his name being on several buildings around the region, or on plaques, and within lists of donors for projects and events.

27) Other things are named for him or in his honor, including a constellation in the heavens.

28) The Pal’s Sudden Service logo was painted on a fisherman’s boat in Indonesia by his daughter Christine, in his honor for Father’s Day. She was there as a volunteer after a tsunami.

29) Pal might not know this himself: there’s a bed named for him, still, in a friend’s hunting lodge in Canada. “Seems like just yesterday, but around 1992 a small group of us — Pal, Dennis Phillips, Wayne Culbertson, Bill Leonard, George Bottcher and I — managed to find the time to spend a few days at my family’s cabin in Canada,” David Rau told me when I asked for a fun Pal memory. “We got there and the rest of us each hurried to claim a comfortable bed. Pal took his time and ended up on a tiny bed in the ‘living room’ that wasn’t much bigger than a large pillow. Sit or lie on this bed, and the center of it collapsed. Somebody said, ‘Jeez, he’s an old man. Trade beds, he needs his sleep.’ Hearing that, Pal bounced around the bed a couple times and said, ‘Hmmm, I kind of like this, I’ll keep it.’ Our group tries to get up there every other year. But that was Pal’s first and only trip to the cabin. And to this day, that bed is known as ‘Pal’s Bed.’ ”

30) He once purchased a vacant building so a local college could establish an automotive program.

31) That’s one example of another of his philosophical outlooks: “I believe it’s not what you gather, but what you scatter.”

32) Pal bought the “Big Man” that stands atop the Lynn Garden Pal’s in California. The next month business increased by 25%. “I thought ‘Big Man’ worked. ‘Big Food’ ought to work too.”

33) When he was 12 years old, he worked for Mr. Shoker at City Grocery, across from the old city hall. Customers would tell him what they wanted and he would gather the groceries. He made $5 a week.

34) He once had his Cadillac completely filled inside with popcorn by an old prankster friend.

35) “I can’t imagine having a job you have to do that you didn’t like. Having to go through life working to make a living at something you don’t like — I’d hate to be like that … wouldn’t you?”

36) Pal played guard on his junior high basketball team.

37) Pal and his wife, Sharon, were chased by pirates aboard a month-long cruise through the gulf of Aiden, between Yemen and Somalia.

38) Pal never told a joke he did not like to repeat, and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. ...

39) Pal loves Kingsport.

40) There is only one way and that’s Palsway!

41) Pal is always willing to pull a prank on somebody.

42) Pal was married twice.

43) Pal has three children.

44) Pal has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

45) In the 1960s, he was the Southeast National go-kart champion.

46) He was promoted to sergeant in the Air Force after only a few months.

47) He could type 85 words per minute on a manual typewriter, thus getting his desk job in the Air Force.

48) While stationed in Austin, Texas, he saw a restaurant concept which led to his development of Pal’s.

49) Pal has had many themed birthdays thrown for him, such as a funeral and a rebirth party.

50) Pal met Ray Kroc in the late ‘50s and visited the first McDonald’s.

51) Always a meticulous dresser, Pal had the same Las Vegas tailor as Elvis Presley. In the 1970s, Pal was known around Kingsport for his custom “playboy” jumpsuits designed by that tailor. (“It was the style at the time,” he says now.)

52) Pal is never on time. He is always early.

53) Pal likes to rank things on a scale of 1-10.

54) Pal is very neat and highly organized. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

55) For several years, Pal kept a Christmas tree in his living room … hanging upside down from the ceiling.

56) On a friend’s birthday, he painted his friend’s house red and white striped, and put a sign in the front yard saying “Pal’s opening soon.”

57) Randy Webb is one of Pal’s oldest and closest friends. He can tell you firsthand about prankster Pal. “The day of my wedding, Pal hired a construction crew to remove all the furniture in my living room, and they built a giant sand box from wall to wall, then filled the box with sand. He had local children hunt cats and kittens to fill the room. Therefore, when we arrived back home after the wedding, we were inundated with cats and kittens that we tried to catch half the night.” But it didn’t end there. “Pal also stole our luggage, and welded a urinal to the back of my car. So, with only a house full of cats to stay in, and no car to drive anywhere and no luggage, our first night together was spent in a room at the airport. Oh, another ‘minor’ detail were the handcuffs Pal placed on us as we left our reception. Really. And the only other key was at the police station, so we had to explain the story before officers came to free us.”

58) Pal stapled several hundred paper cups together in a friend’s home and filled them with water. In order to remove them, each had to be emptied individually to keep from spilling all of them.

59) Retaliating, his friend hired a crane at the expense of more than $1,000 to set a junk automobile in the courtyard of Pal’s house. Pal simply rolled the car out through the garage door. Then he made $200 selling the vehicle.

60) Pal owned Olde West Dinner Theater, which was located on Airport Road.

61) In the mid 1960s, Pal was one of the first people to have a phone in his car. (Rotary dial).

62) To manage his business, Pal accessed computer time from Eastman, back when computers were the size of a room and used vacuum tubes.

63) As best man at his friends’ wedding, Pal stowed away in the back of the couples’ car and waited to reveal himself at “the right moment.”

64) Pal has traveled all over the world. When he met Sharon, she shared his love of adventure and the couple traveled to many countries.

65) Of all their travels, Pal and Sharon most loved their trips to Africa.

66) At his daughter Christine’s wedding, Pal brought a skunk to the reception and turned it loose in the crowded ball room at Ridgefields Country Club. It was a pet skunk that had been de-scented, but the guests didn’t know. That prank backfired though, literally. When Pal retrieved the skunk to take it back to its cage, it pooped down the front of his tuxedo.

67) Pal loved to dance.

68) His favorite dance: the Jitterbug.

69) Pal has a fondness for automobiles and has a collection of vintage ones.

70) Pal and Sharon had multiple second homes, but New York City was always his favorite.

71) They also had second homes in Destin, Florida, and on Kentucky Lake.

72) He had a private jet. Not a corporate jet, mind you. A personal jet. I got to fly on it with him once, so I asked if he still had it. “No. I didn’t need it anymore, so I got rid of it.” His daughter later told me Pal donated the jet to Niswonger.

73) Pal’s favorite musicians: Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

74) Pal went to hundreds of Broadway shows. He kept the playbills for every single one of them, often with the ticket stubs attached.

75) A few of Pal’s favorite foods are dim sum, meatloaf, M&M’s, pea salad, and freshwater eel.

76) His first choice, though, is a chili bun from Pal’s.

77) He likes to wash that chili bun down with a shake (strawberry).

78) He later bought his parents’ home on Fort Henry Drive, renovated it — making it something of a local landmark — and lived there for 72 years.

79) Pal loved to snow ski and took many trips out West with friends and family.

80) Pal kept a New York diary of every day he was there, whom he was with, what restaurants they ate at, and what shows they saw.

81) Pal often took Skoby’s employees to New York and Chicago so they could learn from the restaurant shows.

82) Pal likes his thermostat set at 86 degrees. (I’ve seen the sign. He’s serious. Don’t touch it.)

83) Pal has a knack for interior design.

84) He once took daughter Christy to a barn dance. She was a typical teenager and demanded he not speak to her date so she “wouldn’t be embarrassed.” So he instead presented the young man with a questionnaire and broke the no-speaking rule for just one sentence: “I’m not allowed to speak to you, so please fill this out and turn it in by the end of the night.”

85) Pal pins his black socks together when they are being washed. For one reason, so it doesn’t lose its match, and for the other, all the black socks will fade the same.

86) Pal is a collector. His preference is for more unusual items. He has an extensive collection of vintage peanut butter pails, another of ice cream scoops, and another of copper pots.

87) One of his collectibles once landed him in hot water with the law. He still has it. It’s a vintage, beautifully restored antique slot machine. It takes nickels. Pal had it in his home as a novelty item and collectible. He kept a bowl of nickels next to it for guests to entertain themselves with, over and over. Local police confiscated it because it was, technically, an illegal gaming device. The judge ruled evidence supported Pal’s defense that it wasn’t being used for gambling. But law required the machine to be destroyed. Pal won a victory in getting the court to agree only to destroy its innards. He still has it.

88) Pal was once robbed at gunpoint, suffering a blow to the back of the head by the butt of a shotgun. It all happened in his office at Skoby’s one night in the mid-1970s. Pal was waiting on Phyllis “Nan” Henriott to bring the cash drawer to the office from up front. Four armed men came into the restaurant, also looking for the night’s receipts. Pal bent over to open the safe in his office. “I always had trouble with that safe,” Pal told me. “I was sweating, knowing if it took my usual several tries they would think I was faking, trying to stall them. But I got it open ... and before I could stand back up, they hit me with the end of the gun.” The gunmen also robbed a few customers still in the building. They got away with several thousand dollars.

89) Bruce Axler, a food service expert, consultant and author, who ran Tavern on the Green, the world-famous restaurant in New York’s Central Park, is the person Pal cites as having most influenced him in business.

90) Nurse: “Mr. Barger, when is your birthday?”

Pal: “Aug. 23”

Nurse: “Of what year?”

Pal: “Every year”