Interview with Mildred Huey

Mildred Huey was interviewed by Britt Johnson on April 22, 2012.

Mildred Huey was born on September 13th, 1933 on a farm in Caswell County, North Carolina. She was married to restaurant owner Ralph Huey, who was nine years her senior, in November 1954. She had two children with Ralph, Ralph Jr. and Debbie. Ralph Sr. passed away in 1973, leaving Mildred with a booming restaurant empire and two teenage children. Mildred had no formal education when it came to running a business; all she had to rely on was the mentoring and information she received from her husband while he was alive. Under Mrs. Huey, the multi-state Huey’s restaurant chain flourished until she sold the last one in 1993. In her free time Mildred loves to travel the world, especially Asia, Europe, and California, and to play golf.

On Food Rationing During the Great Depression

Mildred grew up on a farm in rural North Carolina during the Great Depression but her family didn’t feel the strains of the economic downturn like many others did. She said:

But since we grew our own food, even to the meats, we didn’t worry about going hungry like some people did… As I said, the most I remember was the rationing and stuff how hard it was for people that lived in the city. We could remember the long lines that we saw for people being hungry, but it didn’t affect me because of the fact that in today’s terms, we was “poor.” But I had no idea that I was poor [laughs]. I really didn’t – because we were wealthy in that sense of the word. I had no thoughts of being hungry or anything like a lot of people were in the depression.

Listen to the audio of Mildred’s response about her experiences during the Great Depression.

On Gaining Respect in the Professional Community as a Woman

When Mildred’s husband passed away in 1973 she inherited his large multi-state restaurant empire. Mildred’s personality and determination to be successful garnered respect in an era where women rarely held business executive positions. She noted:

The only time I think that I really felt it was after he passed away. It was hard for you to walk into say, a restaurant equipment company and get the respect that you would have. They would look at you like, “does she really know what she’s really looking for?” Or whatever. It didn’t take them long to know that I wasn’t there just to look and shop; I knew what I came after. But that would probably been the only time and I never felt it too much in the business world and around here. I just never did.  Anything I ever tried to do, I done it [laughs]. They had to just tolerate me. I guess that’s what the best thing you could say for it. I didn’t feel no disrespect because they had to accept me. And what I went after, I got. Does that make sense? That’s the way it is, that’s the way it was. But no, I didn’t get showed no respect. Not in the world that I lived in.

Listen to the audio of Mildred’s response about respect in the professional community.

On Balancing a Career and Family

Trying to balance her successful restaurant empire with being a mother to two children proved a challenge to Mildred. Her children might not have liked her solution, but it allowed them time together. She said:

The hours was long. I usually tried to get there about 8 o’clock in the morning, 8:30, and it was 11 o’clock when we got home at night. That was our pattern of our life. But they adjusted [laughs], they’re fine. They might have been cheated out of some things, but they were there with me and we shared in everything that we had to do together. They might not have liked it. Ralph might not have liked washing dishes, or he might not have liked bussing tables. Debbie might not have liked waiting tables…

Listen to the audio excerpt about Mildred’s experience.

On Integration and the Restaurant

Running a restaurant in the South during the fifties and sixties could have led to major tensions in the community. Mildred reflected on her husband’s fears following the passage of new integration laws:

I think that was his fear when they made it law that they could come into the restaurant. He worried about that more than anything else because of how the white people would react. And I would say, “Ralph, it’s the law. If the white ones can’t accept it they can’t come.” He says, “It could ruin the business.” I says, “Everybody’s got to do it. We’re not just the one.” I knew that we would get the most because we had always made a place for them so they could come and eat or take out and stuff like that. Even in the early fifties and he was in business and small they always came. He always had a big black following. And they all was friends. When that happened he really worried about how to handle it. It was really bad there for a while. We had a few walk out.

Listen to the audio about integrating the restaurant.

On Advice for Younger Generations

Mildred offered advice for the youth of America:

Do anything. Do whatever you want to do, but do it well. Don’t take a backseat to nothing. I tell Ivey [granddaughter] all the time. People say, ”I can’t do this.” I say, “You can do anything you want.” Especially in today’s world. If you’re really willing to sacrifice – to do what you really want to do – because you have to spend all the rest of your life working. And if you’re working at something that you don’t like, it’s not a very pleasant life that you live. So do what you really want to, make the most of it and give it your best. That’s my advice. Good things will come, and it may be hard for you, but good things will come. Eventually you will get there. It might take you a while.

Listen to the audio of Mildred’s advice.

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