Former restaurant owner celebrates 89th birthday still serving customers

If you stop in Larrison’s Diner for a bite to eat, you might see a silver-haired woman in a colorful flat cap bopping from table to table cleaning with a smile on her face.

This woman isn’t an ordinary table busser. She’s the former co-owner of the diner itself, Jan Larrison.

Even though the diner now belongs to her daughter, Liz, the 89-year-old still likes to keep active and help out when she can.

“She insists that she doesn’t want any pay, so she eats instead,” Liz said. “But she likes to joke with people and tell them that she has to work for her food.”

Jan celebrated her 89th birthday on Oct. 6 with friends and family while still serving the loyal customers of Jackson County.

“God has been very kind to me,” Jan said.

Jan was born in Salem, Illinois, in 1934 to Colin Calvin McLaughlin and Irene. Jan lived in Salem during the Great Depression and often remembered her mother leaving to go work in a sewing and garment factory.

Jan’s older sister, Coleen, who is now deceased, was most protective of her along with her other sister, Judith, and their baby brother, Jerry.

By the time Jan was 6, the family packed up their belongings and moved to North Vernon so her father could work for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. She lived in a house on Buckeye Street not far from a river where she and her siblings would often play.

“I had the most wonderful parents in the world, even if I was a little mischievous,” Jan said.

Jan and Coleen would often sneak out to go play in the river when they weren’t supposed to, and thanks to their naturally curly hair, it was obvious to others where they had disappeared to.

Jan said she would often go to a restaurant known as Jive Kennel in Columbus that was a popular teen hangout spot in the early 1940s and ’50s. During one of the many dances she was invited to by a friend, she spotted the love of her life from across the room.

“I spotted him and I said to my friend, ‘That is one cute fella there. I kind of like him,’” she said. “She told me she was looking at him, too, but I said, ‘Not at him you’re not.’”

Jan said she had hung around the dance long enough that he finally asked her if she would like to dance, and of course, she said yes.

“When I met her, she was 95 pounds and had an 18-inch waist,” Ed said. “She was a cutie back then and still is today.”

Jan and Ed got married in 1955 after she asked him to marry her, and they have been in love for 68 years, although if you ask her, she’ll tell you they have been married for 100 years.

“When I asked him, he had just got this new job, and he said he wasn’t sure how it was going to go, and all I said was, ‘You’ll be fine,’” she said.

Jan graduated from high school in 1952 and was fortunate to attend nursing school in Kentucky, where she studied to become an operating room nurse. She graduated from St. Joseph’s College, which was at one time associated with Spalding University before it was given its name.

“I was able to take the train in North Vernon to get to school when it was a passenger train at one time,” she said.

Jan said going to nursing school in the 1950s was a great opportunity not only because not many women had the opportunity to get an education, but nursing school proved to be a great experience.

“There were definitely challenges being an OR nurse in the ’50s because we did not have the technology that we do now,” she said.

Jan recalled her experiences treating patients with polio and seeing the use of iron lungs, going into communities as a public health nurse to check on pregnant women and even treating patients with tuberculosis.

As a nurse, Jan was described as a jokester and someone who could bring light in a stressful situation.

“She would have made a great nurse on the TV show ‘M*A*S*H,’” Liz said.

Jan remembered one time taking care of Dr. Bud Graessle, a well-known former physician and surgeon at Schneck Medical Center, when he was in the hospital for a procedure and she was the only one who could convince him to eat. The trick? He always had to eat his dessert first.

Liz said she often remembers tagging along with her mom to work if she had an operation to help with. Even though times have changed, Liz vividly remembers heading to a back waiting room where the operating room was located waiting for her mom to come outside to ask her a question, even if it was just as simple as getting her ears pierced.

“She would come out all dressed up in her scrubs, and I would ask her some silly question,” Liz said. “She would say, ‘Well, this couldn’t have waited?’”

While Jan worked at the hospital, Ed worked various jobs, such as a manager at The Pines and Kentucky Fried Chicken, before the couple went into the restaurant business together.

The corner location at 200 S. Chestnut St. has been operating as a diner since the 1930s when Ed Auffenberg sold hamburgers by the sack. George and Dean Hart bought the business and opened Hart’s Sandwich Shop in the 1940s, and then Ed and Jan took over the diner in this ideal location in 1974, naming it Larrison’s Diner.

Jan said when they first bought the restaurant, she was excited because of the prime location and growing opportunities the city had to offer.

“When we got this store, it was a comforting feeling,” Jan said.

Memories and memorabilia line the walls of the diner, spanning almost 50 years of serving the community. Some memorabilia feature popular hometown singer-songwriter John Mellencamp, who visited the restaurant often as a local.

However, Jan and Liz said they will never forget when a car drove through the front window of the restaurant after the driver accidentally put the car in drive instead of reverse.

“Thankfully, no one was hurt,” Jan said. “But I remember one of the ladies said, ‘Now that’s an overdue on curb service.’”

After 22 years, Jan and Ed sold the business to their children, Liz and Kevin, and Liz has been running the show for 28 years.

For Jan, this didn’t mean she was retiring. She still keeps herself active by walking throughout town at least twice a day and spends her time working in the diner a few days during the week.

“I enjoy seeing people, and oftentimes, I will see people I used to work with or old friends,” Jan said. “I think I enjoy that more than anything in the world.”

Jan said she is always looking for new experiences and challenges to keep her active.

When Hurricane Katrina decimated Louisiana and other surrounding states in 2005, at 70, Jan decided to join the cause in helping survivors through disaster relief efforts.

“We were kind of worried for her going down there by herself at her age, but it was something she wanted to do,” Liz said.

Jan volunteered with the American Red Cross and had the opportunity to meet nurses from all over the world while helping survivors through this unexpected time.

“I was wanting a new challenge, and it was a great experience to be able to meet new people and help the community,” Jan said.

Liz said she and her brother have been blessed to have both of their parents at their age and are grateful for the memories they cherish with them.

“This restaurant really became a family affair and made us such a close-knit family,” Liz said.

From aiding others through disaster to serving patrons in a small diner, Jan said there is no excuse for her to not enjoy what life has to offer for one simple reason.

“All I’ve got is time,” she said.