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Pauls Valley is bidding farewell to Ballard's Drive-In

Longtime restaurateur Johnny Ballard will close the Pauls Valley institution, Ballard's Drive-In, after more than six decades on Friday.
by Dave Cathey Modified: July 16, 2012 at 10:04 pm •  Published: July 16, 2012

For 20 years, Johnny Ballard has told folks he'd retire when he got old enough.

Turns out, 91 is old enough. That's how old Ballard said he will be in a week and a half.

When the Pauls Valley native turns off the open sign at his Ballard's Drive-In on Friday night, it'll never be turned on again.

“It's taken me a little while longer than everybody else, but I think it's about time to retire,” Ballard said. “I had an opportunity to retire at 65, but I just wasn't ready.”

In the 25 years since Ballard's first flirtation with retirement, thousands of restaurants have come and gone, phones have become computers, and the Internet has connected the world. But things have stayed pretty much the same at Ballard's Drive-In.

“I usually come in between 9:30 and 10 in the morning and leave in the late afternoon,” Ballard said. “But I only do it seven days a week.”

The little drive-in on the east side of Interstate 35 is usually abuzz — literally. Each booth is equipped with a wall-mounted menu and red phone, which is connected to the kitchen. When patrons are ready to order, they pick up the phone, and the kitchen phone begins to buzz. Ballard is usually the voice on the end of that line who politely prompts you to, “Order please.”

This keeps the dull moments at bay during Ballard's 50 to 60 work hours per week. So, when he's asked to come out of the kitchen for an interview, he acquiesces, but his head is on a swivel. Each time the kitchen phone buzzes, he pauses long enough to make sure someone is ready to answer.

Travelers up and down Interstate 35 have learned through the decades what all of Pauls Valley already knew: The place to fulfill the desire for charburgers, french fries, Rex chicken bites, tacos, hot dogs, shrimp, ham, cherry limeades and the signature peanut butter milkshake is just off Exit 72.

Ballard's career behind the counter began at Reavis Drug Store in Pauls Valley when he was “15 or 16.” He left Reavis for a soda fountain job that doubled his salary to $7.50 a week. By the time he was a junior in high school, Ballard was assistant manager of a Fairmont Ice Cream Parlor. In the summer, he worked 14- to 22-hour days for a weekly salary of $15, living in a back room in the shop and eating lunch delivered by his mother.

After graduating from Pauls Valley High School in 1940, Ballard took a football scholarship at Oklahoma City University.

“They still had football back in those days,” he said.

Sensing the start of World War II, Ballard left school after one year and moved to San Diego, where he took a job in a B-24 production plant. After Pearl Harbor, Ballard enlisted and would spend the next six years flying the planes he'd spent time building.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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