Jennings Osborne and the eye of the needle 

His worldly possessions went under the hammer last week. The collection of a lifetime, scattered to the winds.

Page 7 of 8

The eye of the needle

As the auctioneers worked through the personal items in the warehouse near Prothro Junction on Friday and Saturday, Bryant "Bear" Morris and his wife, Shretta, set up a table and sold auction-goers the famous barbecue that Osborne gave away by the ton: pulled pork, hot dogs and soda — $3 for an enormous, smoked pork sandwich, wrapped in aluminum foil.

Bear started working for Osborne 17 years ago, doing what he calls "The Cookout." A friend who worked for Osborne told him he needed some extra help on a cook in the southern part of the state, so Bear tagged along. That's where he met Jennings Osborne, and where his life changed.

"We did a cookout in Warren, Ark.," Bear said. "That's where I met him. I picked up a big ol' case of water, and he said: 'You're strong! I'll call you Bear.' From that day forward I've been right there with him. It's been a life."

Bear and Shretta had only been married a year then. Though Bear worked for Osborne full time from then on, both he and his wife eventually wound up working the Osborne cookouts, tending the big smokers through the night and dishing up the 12-pound plate that everybody who came through the line got whether they needed that much or not. Bear, who spent over a decade as Osborne's head barbecue cook, doing dozens of Osborne's no-limits barbecues all over, can still reel off the contents of those plates from memory: whole chicken, turkey leg, pulled pork sandwich, beef brisket, sausage, beef ribs, plus sides. He's walked up the stairs of Air Force One twice to deliver barbecue to two presidents, and once fell 27 feet from Jimmy Carter's roof to hard ground while putting up Christmas lights on the former president's house in Plains, Ga. Carter, Bear said, visited him every day he was in the hospital. A life, indeed.

The Osbornes, Bear and Shretta Morris said, were very good to them. On Thursday, before the Prothro auction, Bear said he'd gone to Osborne's grave and had "a breakdown moment." It clearly hurts them to see Mitzi and Breezy going through the pain of the auction. Bear calls Breezy his sister. Not "like a sister," not "loved as a sister," just "my sister."

"His wife and daughter," Shretta said, "they're heroes of mine. Some people can't take public embarrassment, but to be able to take it on this level and still smile and still be encouraging to others is something."

Though Bear said Osborne didn't come across to the average person who met him as a cheerful man ("There was probably only 10 people in the whole world who ever saw his teeth," he offered), he said that Osborne did have a legendary sense of humor to go along with his bottomless well of generosity once you were accepted into his circle of trust. Standing outside the auction in an Osborne Family apron and yellow kitchen gloves, dishing up pulled pork sandwiches, Bear told the following story:


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