A hamburger maker who made history dies

Thursday, April 14, 2005
Bill Lewis, center, provided a spark for many folks in the morning at his restaurant, Wimpy's, at 506 S. Kingshighway, including Jerry Schwab, left, and Woody Woodfin in this 1992 photo.

Wimpy's was the last of Cape Girardeau's true burger joints, where carhops in the 1950s served cherry Cokes and cheeseburgers to rowdy teens who later in life would continue popping in to talk sports, swap jokes or just to see its affable white-aproned owner.

Bill Lewis, who was known for his easy rapport with his customers as much as his tasty "Wimpy Burgers," died on Tuesday. He was 76.

"He had a story for everybody," said Lewis' brother, Freeman. "He was a big sports fan, so he'd talk sports or tell jokes. He liked to talk to everybody. I guess you don't see that much anymore."

Wimpy's was a Cape Girardeau institution for 55 years, growing from hamburger stand to wildly popular teen hangout before tapering off to a smaller establishment that served its last burger in 1997.

The one constant was Bill Lewis.

Former customers said Wednesday that Wimpy's closing ended a nostalgic chapter in Cape Girardeau's history and that Lewis' death reminded them of how important Wimpy's had been to them.

When he was a young boy, Cape Girardeau barber Bill Sisco and his family went to Wimpy's several nights a week.

"It was just a fantastic place," said Sisco, who also was Lewis' barber for many years. "He was a real people person. And those burgers. Let's just put it this way: That recipe must have been a top U.S. government secret. There hasn't been a hamburger around here like that since Wimpy's closed."

Lewis' brother, Freeman, bought a hamburger stand called Wimpy's in 1942. Located on the northwest corner of Kingshighway and Cape Rock Drive, Wimpy's -- which took its name from the cartoon character Popeye's hamburger-loving friend -- sold its specialty for 7 cents apiece.

The Lewis' parents, Fred and Ethyl, ran the stand while Freeman and his brother, Frank, were fighting World War II. Soon after they returned, the business moved across the street to the corner now occupied by the Bank of America. Youngest brother Bill joined the business soon afterward.

Cape's 'American Graffiti'

It was while at this location that Wimpy's became a popular hang-out for the high-school crowd. One of those teenagers was Al Spradling III, now a 57-year-old lawyer and former Cape Girardeau mayor.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Spradling said, it was the place to find Cape Girardeau's teenagers at lunch, after school or at night.

"It was huge," Spradling said. "In the '50s and '60s, it was like 'American Graffiti.' There were two places you could go -- either Pfister's or Wimpy's. It was the place to go."

Spradling said Lewis family would get angry at teens who would get out of their cars and loiter or when cars would peel out onto the highway. Eventually, police were hired to oversee the lot.

"We probably gave them more grief than they needed," Spradling said.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has vivid memories of Bill Lewis.

"He was always all decked out in white, cooking hamburgers, laughing with the customers," said Swingle, 49. "One side of the building was a restaurant and the other was a small grocery store. That's where I got my comic books. There was always a crowd there. But it was Bill that made it a fun place."

In 1973, the Lewises sold the land to a bank. Freeman and Frank got out of the business, and Bill moved the restaurant to South Kingshighway. He switched to serving breakfast and lunch only, and his clientele aged considerably.

Wimpy's then became home to the coffee shop crowd, where customers talked about the day's headlines or how Southeast Missouri State University's sports teams did.

"We went to Wimpy's more for the conversation than the food," said Jerry Schwab, 63. "Bill always had a good story or a good joke. Bill was a very, very fine guy. You'll never find a local restaurant that had the following that Wimpy's had."


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