McMurray’s fire kindled memories of O’Brien’s

The 11 years Doug Acton’s father owned the restaurant ‘seemed like a lifetime.’

Doug Acton was heading back into Springfield on June 7 when he saw a column of black smoke rising high over the city.

“At first, I thought it was south of I-70,” he said.

Even when he received a text on Bechtle Avenue saying McMurray’s was burning, it took a minute.

“As soon as it soaked in,” he said, “I immediately drove down there.”

With the Springfield Fire Rescue Division into defensive mode and a stream from the aerial ladder showering down on the remains of the building, Acton was awash in memories.

Then it struck him what month it was.

Peach Head

Acton’s father, Jim, was 38 when bought what then was O’Brien’s and later became McMurray’s.

“Peach Head,” the name his father carried since the day he returned from the barbershop as a child with a buzz cut, actually had made money with food in his teens, running concessions at Catholic Central High School’s Hallinean Field.

Later on, he did the same business at Wittenberg University athletic events, as well as motorcycle and car races at the Clark County Fairgrounds.

But in between, Jim Acton sold insurance, “and he hated it,” his son said.

Fortunately, one his first customers was Bobby Fisher, the beer distributor, and the two grew to be fast friends.

Fisher sold beer to Howard Miller, who had bought O’Brien’s from its founder, Walter E. O’Brien, and knew that Miller was nearly as unhappy with his work as Jim Acton.

“He took my dad down there one day, said (to Miller) ‘this man wants to buy the restaurant,’” then left the two of them to work out the deal,” Doug Acton said.

That was in 1969.

“When I look back and realize he only owned it for 11 years,” it’s surprising, Acton said. But given that Acton was 5 in 1969 and 16 when it changed hands in 1980, he said, “It was a lifetime for me.”

A constant rush

It also was a ceaselessly busy time for his dad, who worked ungodly hours and seldom saw his children Mike, the oldest, Lisa, two years younger, and Doug, four years younger than her.

“My mom ran the home front. She was responsible for raising us,” Acton recalled. “On Thursdays, that was her day to get her hair done and go to the grocery.”

Then she’d take the three kids to O’Brien’s for a family dinner.

“That was a ritual for years,” he said.

Young Doug would always order a hamburger and fries.

“My dad would sit down with us for five or ten minutes and we would get to eat with him.”

Then he’d be back to work.

But the brief Thursday time together was an appetizer for the weekends, when the young Actons got the thrill of going to the hub of their family’s life.

It started with Sundays.

“Back then my dad did payroll,” Acton said. “So he would take us down to the restaurant and sit us at the bar. Dad went to basement office, and I got to watch football and basketball and had free rein on the Pepsi gun and beer nuts.”

Time together soon spread to Saturdays.

“I started working there when I was 7 years old. I had to wipe down the booths and tables and fill the salt and pepper shakers. We used to have to pull weeds and hose down the sidewalk on Saturday mornings.”

They also went to the bank.

“I was salaried at $10 a week. And I had to write ‘for deposit only’ on the back of my check” and put it in an account for his college education.

“I thought I was big bucks,” he said.

A distant fire

Acton said the June 7, 2013, blaze wasn’t the first in the building.

“There was actually a fire there in the early ’70s,” he said. “My dad had just remodeled. I think he had added the room on the west side of the restaurant.

Because the work had been finished Saturday and the fire struck early Monday, “he’d spent all this money renovating the restaurant and nobody got a chance to see it.”

Doug Acton’s indelible memory of the fire, which struck when he was in the third or fourth grade, is of a Pepsi clock that had melted down the wall.

As Acton got older, “I started working with him on the front end,” he said.

His dad “would ensure that when a customer walked in the front door, they were greeted; that as soon as they were seated, they had a menu, water was delivered to the table right away and a drink order (was) taken.”

But Jim Acton managed to mix fun into all the busy-ness.

Liver and onions

“He bought a 1967 Cadillac limousine,” Acton recalled. “On Friday and Saturday nights, if you had six or more for a reservation, my dad or (a maitre d) would pick you up, you’d eat dinner, and they’d take you back home in a limousine.”

“Supposedly it was for the business,” Acton said. “But he had more fun with it. He had a plastic machine gun and a violin case that he kept in the back of the car.”

Doug Acton remembers the special perks he enjoyed from being son of the owner: His sports teams were treated to meals at O’Brien’s; he served and rubbed elbows with a succession of Wittenberg football and basketball stars eating their pregame meals; and he got to know all of the Springfield characters and Wittenberg coaches and staff that ate there.

One of Acton’s pieces of memorabilia is a letter from the late Jonathan Winters, thanking his dad for forwarding Winters a picture of the comedian at the restaurant and a copy of the O’Brien’s menu.

The Sept. 18, 1972, note contains two things of interest to Winters fans: that at the time, he was busy filming his show, “The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters”; and that Winters had been busy with the painting he so liked to do.

He also had a piece of advice for Acton: “Keep liver and onions on the menu.”

Others on the menu

Other lesser known people made the restaurant go.

Carl Lloyd, who worked at the restaurant, lived two doors down from the Actons and kept the grill that Jim Acton used each Sunday to cook steak for his family and for Lloyd.

“Roy Brown was head chef at the Springfield Country Club. When he was let go, he came down and told my dad he needed a job. That was the best thing that could have happened.”

And after Brown retired, “George Chambers became the head chef.”

Knowing how his own work schedule interfered with his family life, Jim Acton “would close the restaurant for two weeks in the summer time,” Acton said.

While this allowed Eros Cleaning to give the place a thorough going over from a year of cooking grease and restaurant traffic, “at the same time, he gave all his employees paid vacation. And this allowed them time to spend with their children who were off of school.”

His father had just returned from vacation, leaving Doug behind because he had to get to a meeting in Springfield, when he died of a heart attack June 18, 1980.

“It was two weeks before my 16th birthday,” he said, and because they’d been kept apart by his father’s work, “I was just starting to feel this bond with my Dad.”

Six months later, his sister died in a Christmas Eve car crash while heading home from the University of Cincinnati.

Freshly graduated from Wittenberg, his brother didn’t think he could handle the responsibility, and the business was sold a year later. He, too, died, 10 Junes back.

The ‘to go’ order

The memories that came Doug Acton’s way while watching the recent fire weren’t all bad.

Some of them surrounded him like the O’Brien’s memorabilia he brought out not long ago on his back porch.

Still, having a birthday four weeks after the fire as he’d had two weeks after his father’s passing seemed strange — particularly given that he turned 49.

“I still feel young,” Acton said, “but my dad died at this age.”

All this has strengthened Acton’s resolve to continue to pass on to his daughter what his father passed on to him.

Just as his father took him to work, Acton, who rehabs houses and sells real estate, takes his 14-year-old Madelyn along.

“I taught her how to strip wallpaper, how to paint. I had her tear out carpeting. And whenever I close on a house she’s helping me rehab, she gets money to put into that account for college.”

He also bought a boat to spend time with her just as his father had so they could spend their summer Sundays when the restaurant was closed together at Indian Lake.

He had just dropped her off in South Charleston June 7 when he returned to Springfield to see a column of black smoke rising high over the city.

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