By Lisa Whaley
With Thanksgiving now behind us, we prepare to dive headfirst into the upcoming holiday season.
Yet this year, perhaps like no other, we are reminded that the joys of the season are not always a reflection of the events of the year.
On Nov. 14, a little more than a week before Thanksgiving, local favorite Clarence’s Drive-In burned to the ground leaving a family, the restaurant’s employees and its surrounding community heartbroken.
The diner had been in operation as “Clarence’s” since 1969, when Clarence Tapp purchased the eatery. Tapp’s niece, Teresa Collins and her husband Jerry, are the current owners, and had continued building on its reputation as a favorite gathering place.
The atmosphere was warm and unpretentious. The food was home-cooking — especially breakfast — at its best. And you didn’t have to be a resident of Unicoi County to be a fan.
Long before I had even met my husband — whose family tree is filled with Unicoi County roots and branches — I had already sampled platefuls of its tasty fare with equally appreciative friends.
Not long ago, in fact, my teenage daughter and I had grabbed a Sunday bite after an afternoon spent in town. We didn’t realize it would be our last Clarence burger and hot roast beef sandwich for a while — such a tiny loss compared to those who depended on Clarence’s for their livelihood, yet a loss nonetheless.
Still, as is often the case, neighbors and friends showed all of us once again the right way to react to disaster — and through their responses were able to begin turning more than one loss into potential blessings.
Everyone, of course, is grateful that the fire was contained and no one was injured in the blaze. Members of the Unicoi County Volunteer Fire Department have been credited for being instrumental in limiting its spread.
As for the restaurant’s employees, most who had been with the restaurant for years, some have been offered jobs at nearby Johnson City eateries and while others have been the focus of local individuals and churches who have worked to provide help for the Thanksgiving holiday. Former employee Amy Devercelly has even set up a GoFund-Me page for Clarence’s employees. To donate to the GoFund-Me page, visit https://www.gofundme.com/4pt-z7lc.
Even the cause of the blaze, a spark ignited by the paving company preparing to do work at the restaurant, turned into a blessing because while the restaurant itself was unable to secure fire insurance because of its age, the paving company was insured, according to Teresa Collins.
That means they will be re-opening Clarence’s Drive-In, as soon as they can get everything in place. Right now, they’re looking at leasing the former La Meza Mexican restaurant building located at 3615 Unicoi Drive, then eventually rebuilding on Clarence’s original location.
That’s a definite blessing for its customers, as well as the employees.
This fire hasn’t been allowed to rob the joy, but it is still a reminder. As we move into the Christmas season, let us not forget that more than one of us are carrying heavy burdens as the sleigh bells ring this year. Let us continue to look for ways to turn those burdens into blessings, or to help lighten them when we can. Clarence’s employees are one example. I know, if we look, we can find many more.