By JAMES WEAR
It’s the words inscribed on her tombstone out in the Liberty Hill Cemetery that perhaps sum up the life of Wanda Lane: “A mother to many, a friend to all.”
Wanda is widely regarded as one of the most influential persons to ever have called Liberty Hill home, and today, 19 years after her passing, folks still talk about the woman who operated a small café downtown.
“What a great lady,” recalls former Liberty Hill fire chief James Pogue. “She helped more people than anyone ever knew. She knew it and that’s all that mattered to her. She did it for all the right reasons.”
Wanda’s daughter, Paula, says her mother was a confidant to many of her customers. “She took a lot of secrets to her grave,” says Paula.
Many of the locals made it a part of their daily routine to drop by the café in the afternoon for a cup of coffee. I was among those, too, after having gone to work for the late Jim Linzy when he started The Independent in the 1980s, a cup of coffee at Wanda’s Café became a part of our day…several times a day.
Wanda, who was born in Paint Rock, got into the restaurant business at an early age. Paula says her mother was 11 when she began waitressing at a café in Canyon.
“She told me she had to stand on a Coke box to reach the cash register,” says Paula.
After coming to Liberty Hill, Wanda would work for Grace Perry when Perry had a café out on Highway 29, and also worked for Clyde Joseph at her café and spent a couple of years working for Roy Allman when he had a meat market downtown.
Eventually, she’d go out on her own and leased Mrs. Perry’s café on the highway. She spent a year there, highlighted by the day country music singer Willie Nelson brought his picnic to Liberty Hill and Wanda and her crew spent a 24-hour period dishing out hamburgers to the hungry hordes that descended upon the town.
The following year, after enlisting brothers James and Irvin Johns to perform a massive remodel on the building that now is occupied by a barber shop, she moved her business there, and began building a legend.
Wanda would arrive to work around 4 a.m., and in the café’s early years, remain open until 9 p.m., five days a week. On Saturday, she’d close at 2 in the afternoon.
The late Gloria Myers, who operated a flower shop next door to Wanda, often told a story that illustrated Wanda’s devotion to her customers. A power outage had left Liberty Hill in the dark on this particular morning, and Myers said she found Wanda cooking by flashlight.
Wanda enjoyed a profitable business and gave back to the community, often sponsoring Little League teams and other organizations. Folks who had fallen upon hard times were never turned away, and volunteer firefighters who found their meals interrupted by an emergency call would return to find their meals paid by Wanda.
The hard work and long hours took its toll on Wanda, and in 1994, she began a battle with cancer. As the medical bills piled up, a group of individuals began planning a fundraiser that would become known as “Wanda Lane Appreciation Day.” The event, held on Oct. 30, 1994, was incredibly successful as close to $30,000 was raised in a single day. A parade streamed through downtown, and Wanda, who loved parades but seldom got to watch any, had a front row street. It was the longest parade I ever recall passing through Liberty Hill.
A group of friends helped me post a sign downtown that read “Honk if you love Wanda” and for weeks horns blared.
On that day, Wanda was presented with a letter from Gov. Ann Richards that noted Wanda’s devotion to the community.
Her health continued to decline, and in December, when we had our annual family Christmas Eve gathering at Wanda’s house, we knew time was short. It was an evening I’ll never forget, and included Wanda singing “Soldier’s Last Letter” to us.
On Friday, Feb. 17, 1995, Wanda drew her last breath with her family at her bedside. The following Monday, graveside services were held at Liberty Hill Cemetery. The procession began in Georgetown and stretched over 10 miles. En route to the cemetery, the procession came through downtown Liberty Hill and paused momentarily in front of Wanda’s Café. A large group of people lined the streets.
As we pulled into the cemetery, the family felt a bit overwhelmed by the numbers. About 1,000 people had turned out for the final goodbye.
In the years that have passed, we often speak of her and remember the good times and the stories.
Paula recalls the late Congressman Jake Pickle being among her mother’s customers, and Pickle asking Wanda to come down to Austin and let him buy her lunch.
Then, there was the time Wanda, trying to serve a large lunch crowd, asked her longtime companion Weldon Goodson to go wash up some plates. Weldon made the mistake of refusing and headed out the back door. He was rewarded with Wanda flinging a razor sharp spatula into his back.
He washed the dishes shortly thereafter.
It was at Wanda’s Cafe that I met the girl who would become my wife, and Wanda played a big part in getting the two of us together.
I was sitting there one afternoon when Paula poured me a cup, and then sat down.
“You want to go do something tonight?” she asked, and I said, “Yeah, sure.” Paula later fessed up that her mother had told her that some girl had broken my heart and I needed cheering up.
A few months later, we were married, and for the location of our ceremony, we chose the front steps of the café, but that’s another story for another time.
Share comments, ideas with James by email: James@LHIndependent.com