Susan Gordy, 76, went from life in fashion to owning Varsity Jr.

Credit: AJC staff

Credit: AJC staff

Atlanta-area native ‘brought a lot of class to a hot dog restaurant’

Storied Atlanta institution the Varsity has lost a beloved family member. Susan Myrl Gordy nee Hunter passed away Sept. 6 after a battle with breast cancer. She was 76.

Gordy is widely remembered among locals as the matriarch of the now-defunct Varsity Jr., but her friends, family and former employees recall a woman who leaves a legacy of hard work, thoughtfulness and compassion — always performed with impeccable style.

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Born Oct. 22, 1943, she was raised in Sandy Springs and graduated from Sandy Springs High School. She attended Gulf Park College for Women in Gulfport, Mississippi, then the University of South Carolina. A degree in journalism and a passion for fashion led her to publicity and merchandising positions with J.P. Allen, Macy’s and Lord & Taylor.

“Susan’s style was only surpassed by her thoughtfulness,” said longtime friend Martha Jo Katz. They met at a fraternity party at Emory University in the late 1950s and didn’t meet again until 1966, when Katz was beginning her modeling career. “She never forgot me. Somehow, she got my name and number.” She hired Katz for plenty of fashion shows, and the pair remained close friends through the years. “She included me and my husband in a lot of family events and parties. She always celebrated my birthday with me. She was generous with everything.”

Another longtime friend, Sally White, 95, also came to know Gordy during her days with Macy’s. Twenty years Gordy’s senior, White took the young woman with a flair for fashion under her wing and pushed her to fly. “We did store windows together. I supervised what Susan did. Later, I encouraged her to jump from there to Lord & Taylor as fashion director,” recalled White, who retired as the public relations director for Neiman Marcus. “I was involved in all the big steps in Susan’s life.”

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One of those big steps was in 1972, when she married W. Frank Gordy Jr., son of the Varsity founder Frank Gordy. Another defining moment was in 1980, when her husband died. The younger Gordy had opened the Varsity Jr. on Lindbergh Drive in northeast Atlanta in 1965. Upon his death, his widow stepped in and ran the business.

But she did it her way, her style.

“When she came to the Varsity Jr., she had on a dress, all these nice things. Eventually somebody said, ‘You know, you probably can’t wear that to work,’” recounted Rudolph Anderson. In his 37 years working at the restaurant, he amassed rich memories of Susan Gordy’s hands-on approach (“She began to get behind the counter: ‘What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?’”), tireless work ethic and gusto for catering.

“Miss Gordy was the first person who had ever done catering at the Varsity Jr. Her catering went to the top,” said Anderson, recalling catering gigs for Delta Air Lines, the Fox Theatre, and ones that took them all the way to Washington, D.C., to feed Newt Gingrich and other Georgia politicos.

Anderson met Gordy when he was 22 years old and credits her for keeping him from running astray throughout his life. “She was like a mom more than an employer,” he said.

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Many young Varsity Jr. employees felt the same way. Upon leaving the restaurant for another career, they would return to tell Gordy, “I’m so glad I worked for you. Everything I learned I was able to take somewhere else,” Anderson said.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Gordy generously shared what she learned about operating a family business with her sister-in-law, Nancy Simms, when the latter took over the Varsity in Midtown and its Athens location upon the death of her father in 1983. “She was a great example of managing employees, working behind the counter, greeting guests,” Simms said. “It was very unusual for two women to take over a business like that at the time. I didn’t think I would stay in the business, but when I got into it, I loved it. So did Susan.”

When Gordy retired in 2006, former Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell called it the “end of an era.” “I don’t know of anyone who has worked harder to serve the public,” Massell said at her send-off party held at the restaurant.

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Gordy is remembered for her spirited personality. “We don’t want to be normal. Normal is boring,” Gordy once told Simms. “Susan was an over-the-top person with everything she did. If anyone loved to give a party, it was Susan Gordy,” Simms said.

A Susan Gordy party was meticulously planned with a theme, table settings and presents for guests. “She made sure everything was exactly right,” Katz said.

Credit: Kim Link

Credit: Kim Link

Gordy did not have children, but the former board member of the Atlanta Humane Society adored dogs. At one time, she housed nine dogs — the majority acquired because their elderly owner had passed away. She referred to her house as a “puppy palace,” having dedicated a bedroom and bathroom for her canine rescues.

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Gordy’s niece, Lisa Gregory, worked at the Varsity Jr. for 20 years and cared for her aunt when her health declined. “She brought a lot of class to a hot dog restaurant,” Gregory said. "She made an impact on everyone, everywhere she went.”

Due to the coronavirus, the family has planned a private graveside service.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Susan Gordy