The first time I checked out the new restaurant Mr. K’s Barbeque, my initial sense awakened was not smell, though that was a close second. It was my sense of history. Charles Kendrick’s history, to be exact.
As I walked through the door, my eye was drawn to a table of memorabilia depicting his life’s story (it is now on the walls of the restaurant). I soon realized that Kendrick, who is known as Mr. K, is a multi-faceted man whose creative ideas and tenacity in his many endeavors have led to success in a big way.
Mr. K, who will turn 80 on Oct. l8, was born in Stamps, Ark. The whole family moved to Texarkana, Texas around l932. Sadly, young Charles’ mother died of tuberculosis in l935, when he was only 4 years old.
That same year, his dad joined the mass exodus of blacks leaving the South. He moved to Tucson, where he was soon hired as a custodian at the University of Arizona. Charles and his brother went to live with their maternal grandparents in Texarkana.
Charles got his first job at age l0. A Social Security card was secured by the time he was 11. Growing up, he also did manual labor in the Texarkana stockyards.
White kids often got the work there and would subcontract it out to black kids for less money. One of his young white “employers” had a job at the stockyards at 35 cents an hour; he hired Charles for 20 cents. The last time Charles saw this employer was when the latter came home from the naval academy. The employer eventually became a successful businessman who would unsuccessfully campaign for President.
Charles also observed successful people. His personal inspiration was a black pharmacist in Texarkana who owned a drug store.
“He was quite successful, with a custom built home and car with all matching tires,” Mr. K explained to me. “The pharmacist wore a white shirt and necktie. He even had all the ice cream and sodas a person could want. I decided this was what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
Charles joined his father in Tucson in l948. Education was a priority in the Kendrick family. Graduating from Tucson High in l950, Charles then enrolled at the UA College of Pharmacy. His memories of the first day at the university include being forced to take Army ROTC instead of Air Force, and being denied service in the cafeteria.
His biggest disappointment was when he applied for an employee discount on tuition. His Dad had been working at the UA for l5 years.
“I was told that janitors’ kids did not count,” Mr. K recounted, “even though my dad cleaned the office of President (James Byron) McCormick and later President (Richard A.) Harvill.”
Charles came home that first day completely dejected and told his dad that he was going to forget college. His dad said he did not have to finish but he had to try. Quitting before he even started was not an option.
In 1955, Charles became the first black in Arizona to graduate from the UA College of Pharmacy. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army. After his honorable discharge, he spent a couple years in Phoenix and then moved back to Tucson, where he has lived ever since.
Fast forward to l967. Mr. K was recruited by Kino Hospital (then called Pima County Hospital) to become a staff pharmacist. His retirement in l995 didn’t last long.
“I awoke on the third day of retirement and was planning how I wanted my funeral,” Mr. K recalled. “I even wrote out my obituary and memorial service. I realized that this was crazy. I don’t have any big hobbies, so what was there to do except some productive work?”
He continued to work part-time at Kino, retiring in 2009, after 42 years of continuous service, 18 of which were spent supervising the outpatient pharmacy.
While still working at Kino Hospital, Mr. K and fellow curator Shad Blair opened the Afro-American Heritage Museum in l998. It was housed in a building Mr. K had constructed himself at 1830 S. Park Ave. To attract visitors and also support the museum, the two opened a barbecue restaurant in the building, using recipes that had been in the Kendrick family for more than a century.
Previous to opening the eatery, Mr. K had researched barbecue successes, visiting Kansas City and central Texas three times to study how they were run.
He told me, “I ate barbecue from Tucson to central Texas and Kansas City, everywhere I saw a sign. When I came home, all I did to tweak the family recipes was add a little pepper to the beans.”
Today, one of Mr. K’s more important roles at the new restaurant, which is co-owned by his daughter Rhonda and her business partners, is to greet customers and make them feel welcome.
“We want to hold true to being local and do not need some corporation telling us how to do things,” he shared.
As my interview with Mr. K wrapped up, my sense of smell kicked in and led me straight to the barbecue line. I knew I was in for a treat.
If you go
What: Mr. K’s Barbecue
Where: 4911 N. Stone Ave., Tucson
Hours: Daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Phone: 408-RIBS (7427)
Barbara Russek welcomes comments at Babette2@comcast.net.