Stilled life: Remembering Spudnuts' owner
It's early Tuesday morning at Spudnuts, the iconic doughnut shop at the southern tip of the Belmont Bridge, and a group of regulars are remembering their old friend, Richard Wingfield, the shop's owner and baker who died the previous week at age 75.
"If you came in here once or twice," says Norman Lushbaugh, 85, "Richard knew you." Lushbaugh, one of Wingfield's first customers when the shop opened in 1969 and a lifelong friend, laughs. "Never tell Richard something you want him to forget," he advises, as if his old friend just might appear from around the counter.
Indeed, for so many of Wingfield's customers it's hard to believe he's gone. Located on Avon Street back when the surrounding Belmont neighborhood was still solidly working class, Spudnuts has been a Charlottesville landmark for so long that it's easy to overlook its impressive longevity.
The shop even survived the demise of the chain of dozens of shops linked by the mutual bond of secret-recipe potato flour. Will Bodos or the Mudhouse be around in 36 years? For many Charlottesvillians, Wingfield was Spudnuts.
"He was a friend to everybody, " says Pete Hall, another original customer. "One of a kind," he adds, smiling and staring down into his coffee.
"He could talk with anybody," says Ronnie Horton, who was 18 years old when he had his first Spudnut. "I don't think he ever made anybody mad."
Of course, that doesn't mean Wingfield was a shrinking violet. "If you're an idiot, you get fun out of weird things," he said in a 2003 video documentary about the Belmont neighborhood. "If you can get fun out of workin' like hell for 30 years without makin' any money"– Wingfield lets out a big belly laugh– "then I guess I'm harvesting my reward."
The 2003 documentary, Still Life with Donuts: Natural History of a Neighborhood, written and directed by Mark Edwards and Mary Michaud, captures much of what Wingfield's old customers say about him.
Wingfield comes off almost as the unofficial mayor of the gentrifying neighborhood. Lushbaugh and the others say they never saw anyone work harder.
"He'd come in here at 1am in the morning and not leave until the next night," says Lushbaugh. In fact, when the group is asked if Spudnuts will be able to continue without Wingfield, they wonder if anyone will be capable or willing to put in those kinds of hours.
According to Wingfield's daughter, Lori, she and her husband plan to keep Spudnuts open. "We're trying," she says. "My husband has his own business on top of this, but we're going to try to keep things going."
Wingfield also had a wonderfully dark sense of humor. In fact, when this is pointed out to the other regulars, they all laugh in agreement.
"One fella fell out of a chair here two months ago," Wingfield is saying in Still Life. "We called the rescue squad, and he died on the way to the hospital... I don't know if the coffee and donuts killed him or what." Wingfield laughs, but then grows somber. "No, I'm just kidding," he says. "He was a real nice guy. He came in here for years and years and years." The man was Pete Hall's brother.
"He had wisdom," says Hall of Wingfield, something all the others at the table are quick to second. Lushbaugh talks about how intelligent Wingfield was, how he loved to discuss all kinds of subjects and was an avid reader. They had traded books back and forth for 30 years.
The walls at Spudnuts are a tribute to Wingfield's eclecticism. All kinds of unique art work, photos, and memorabilia adorn the walls, as well as a large glass mural of customer photos. Again, Wingfield's appearance in Still Life: "Everything changes... and it must," he says, noting a set of beautiful oaks cut down to make room for a park, but meaning more. "We try to hold on to it... but the best we can do is hold on to the memory."
According to friends, Wingfield, who suffered several heart attacks and a stroke before his death of an apparent heart attack, requested not to have a funeral service. Instead, he wanted people make donations to the charities of their choice. And if you're in the area, the Hook suggests, why not stop in for a coffee and a Spudnut?
Four signs. one popular breakfast spot
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER
Wingfield in the 2003 Still Life documentary
PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER