Jo Carter rubbed shoulders with everyone — from powerful political and business figures and famous athletes to the office worker trying to grab a good Southern meal.
She really did rub shoulders.
Carter, the longtime “Goodwill Ambassador” at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, was known for her quick wit, generous smile, flirtatious manner and the frequent shoulder massages she would give customers at the Atlanta dining institution.
“She was as authentic as you could get,” said Mary Mac’s owner John Ferrell. “Probably, her biggest fault was she didn’t mind telling you how she felt about things. She might tell you that you were doing something wrong at work and then turn around and be the most gracious, loving and accepting person with the quickest wit of anyone I ever knew.”
The restaurant on Ponce de Leon Avenue has seven dining rooms and can seat up to 500 people.
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That didn’t matter. “You never had to look very far for Jo,” he said. “To find out where she was, you just listened for the room with the most laughter.”
Carter died Wednesday at age 79 in Gainesville after a brief illness. Arrangements are pending.
In her 25 years with Mary Mac’s, she became an Atlanta institution in her own right. Customers included U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, who attended her 2017 retirement party, former President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama and actor Robert Duvall.
Condolences poured in from customers on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“She was southern hospitality at it’s finest!!,” wrote one fan.
Another called her a legend and reckoned “Back rubs are now being given in Heaven!!”
Lewis issued a statement on Carter.
“Whenever I would visit Mary Mac’s she was always eager to see me and say hello,” he said. “ She would ask, ‘Where have you been?’ She would call me her boyfriend, playfully tease me, and say, ‘Don’t be talking to other women.’
He said Carter was “the embodiment of Southern comfort and hospitality.
Tracie Justus, a professor at Georgia State University, eats at Mary Mac’s several times a month. She first wandered into the restaurant when she was a college student, thinking she was coming for a cup of tea, as the name implies.
Carter came over and immediately became the welcoming Southerner. She told Justus that they didn’t see a lot of young people come in by themselves.
After that, whenever Justus, who lives in Stone Mountain, returned, Carter would swing by her table and “ask how I was doing and how were my grades. I’m from Connecticut and an only child, so to have a person down here checking on you, well, that was so sweet. I’ve never seen that kind of service anywhere.”
“I always loved my mother’s hospitable gesture of walking through the restaurant and rubbing guests’ backs, and it warmed my heart that Ms. Jo carried on that tradition. It was a very Southern trait,” said Marie Lupo Nygren, daughter of Margaret Lupo, owner of Mary Mac’s in the early 1960s through 1994.
Carter was born Essie Jo Carter in Buck Fork, W.Va., and moved to Atlanta in the early 1960s with her husband, the late Alvin Dale.
She always worked as a waitress at restaurants around Atlanta, including Mr. B’s and, later, Mary Mac’s, where she briefly worked as a dining room manager before retiring for six months. She moved back to West Virginia, then returned to Atlanta and Mary Mac’s.
“She couldn’t take being retired,” said Leah Gilbert of Oakwood, her daughter. “She would have worked up until her death if she could have. Her life was pretty much working. She loved it.”
Her mother always said she liked meeting different people and “everyone talked with her like family. She had people she had known for years.”
Carter’s home in Gainesville was filled with framed proclamations and photographs with famous people.
She was devoted to her family and her cat, Taz, an abandoned cat she rescued. She also loved gardening.
Carter was such a fixture that Ferrell once had T-shirts made that read: “I got my belly filled and my back rubbed at Mary Mac’s Tea Room.”
They couldn’t keep the shirts in stock.
In recent years, Carter suffered from a number of ailments. At times, it became too difficult to stand for long hours in the restaurant. Perhaps she would retire for good this time. She did, but she always came back.
Occasionally, Carter would come back to see old friends at the restaurant, and each time “it caused a little wildfire” because people were so happy to see her, said Ferrell.
Carter is survived by a daughter, Leah (Glenn) Gilbert; grandsons, Jason Gilbert and Jeremy Gilbert; and five great-grandchildren.