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Atwater's tradition continues


A day after closing to mourn their father's death, the Atwater brothers were back at work Tuesday, greeting friends and longtime customers at the family's landmark cafeteria.

Tim Atwater said he and his brothers decided to take the unprecedented step Monday, making it the only closure in more than three decades. Elzo Atwater Sr. did not shut down even when when his mother died in 1982, Tim Atwater said.

"My dad never rested," he said.

"I don't think he knew what that meant," said Annie Wright, who sold her restaurant in the 1960s to the man who started a family business that would eventually become one of St. Petersburg's cross-cultural meeting places.

"When I came up and locked the doors Monday, I think I heard my dad say, "Is the cafeteria open?' Even when he was sick, he wanted to work."

Elzo "Deac" Atwater Sr. died Sunday of an apparent stroke at 64 years old. Almost to the last, he was talking about the values he passed on to his seven sons and two daughters.

Tim Atwater, who runs a landscaping business, said he was talking on Saturday to his father about an underground sprinkler system he hopes to install at an apartment development in Fort Myers. The conversation turned to PVC pipe, which Tim said is normally used these days because it is less expensive than other kinds of pipe.

The elder Atwater responded that in his day, people used copper because it was tougher and lasted longer.

"He always said, "Do it the right way.' He never wanted to take shortcuts," said Tim Atwater.

Elzo Atwater Sr. and Mattie, his wife of 44 years, brought up his children with such values, said Rick Atwater, another son.

"He just wanted us all to be hard-working," he said, "so we wouldn't have to worry about where our next nickel was coming from."

Tuesday, the cafeteria lunch crowd was as big as always. Many customers stopped to express condolences, including a kindergarten teacher who taught Tim 28 years ago.

It was just as busy at the Bayboro Cafe a couple of miles away, where a lunchtime line wound out the serving area's door. Elzo Atwater Jr. took over the cafe on the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg campus in August.

Elzo Jr., the oldest brother, turns 42 on Thursday. He remembers his graduation and wedding went on without his father.

"That's just the way he was. He didn't do anything soft," Elzo Jr. said.

"Daddy, he didn't play. When he said something, you did it. There was no such thing as peer pressure. You ask anybody on 22nd Street."

The man New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church members simply called "Deac" _ for deacon _ came to St. Petersburg in 1956. He lived in Gadsden County, not far from Two Egg. He never finished high school. He usually worked two jobs.

Mrs. Wright said a scrap company he worked for gave him the down payment to buy the 22nd Street S Harlem Restaurant and Grill. Now 91, Mrs. Wright said she stayed on to help Atwater learn the business. The brothers treat her like a queen and call her "Mama Wright."

In 1977, Atwater opened the cafeteria at 895 22nd Ave. S. Over the years, the Southern-style cooking attracted both white and black patrons. Even with the passing of its founder, the restaurant is not going to close, said Tim Atwater, and expansion to another location is still in the works.

Eric, the youngest brother at 22, will continue running his cookie business, too. He's proud that Walgreens stores have picked up his product.

Even though other family members frequently came to the forefront in dealing with the media, his father was the guiding force, Tim Atwater said. "It sounds like a cliche . . . but he led from the rear. He ran the show.

"People today search for heroes," he said. "A lot of the time, you look for sports heroes, people in the media, entertainment. But my father was my hero. All my brothers' hero. We didn't have to look at TV to find one."

And when he tries to sell that sprinkler job in Fort Myers, he said, he'll propose that copper pipe be used.