Today's a sad day not just for Savannahians, but for people all across the country. Mrs. Sema Wilkes has died.
She had a stroke a few weeks ago and had been in hospice care since. Around 8am this morning, she died. She was 95 years old.
About 60 years ago, she and her husband opened Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House, and its fame spread by word of mouth around the world. She was known for her good food and friendly face.
As you can imagine, this has been a hard day for her family and the people who worked for her. We spoke with some of the people closest to her. All of them are sad, but they opened the restaurant today, because family and employees say that is the way Mrs. Wilkes would have wanted it.
While passing the fried chicken or the sweet tea, it's hard to miss the smiling face of Mrs. Wilkes. Her accomplishments are proudly displayed all over the restaurant, her spirit of family kept alive every day.
"Every morning when she came in she would say, 'I'm here,' and that is so we knew the matriarch was here," said cook Denise Coleman.
Mrs. Wilkes and her restaurant became world renowned, thanks to some strong determination by a petite woman. The lessons she taught to family, friends and employees were about more than down-home cooking: they were life lessons, which will live on forever.
"She was always encouraging me so much, and just wanted me to be the best person I can," Ryon Thompson, her great grandson, told us.
"I learned a lesson and I will never forget this, cause she told me this the last time she was here. That's don't put dirty rags around my apron," said Celia Maxwell, one of the cooks.
Through the growth and fame of her restaurant, one thing was never left behind: her family.
Gradnson-in-law Ronnie Thompson said, "As people were born, they came into the business."
And even though Mrs. Wilkes is gone, it's her family that will keep her legacy alive.
"If everybody accomplished as much in their lifetime as she did," Ronnie said, "the world would be a better place to live."
Savannah aldermen heard of Mrs. Wilkes' passing this afternoon right before the council meeting started. They say its clearly a loss to the city.
"She has been a person that tourists look forward to meeting when they visit Savannah, and she is a person that always gave back to the community," noted city councilwoman Edna Jackson.
"She was a legend around here, sure the whole city will be missing her, I'm sure she'd gone on to a better place," said Ellis Cook of District 3.
Mrs. Wilkes has provided city council members with her good southern food at every council meeting for years.
Here are the arrangements for Mrs. Wilkes:
- Visitation will be Sunday night from 5pm to 7pm at Fox & Weeks on Hodgeson Memorial.
- The funeral will be held at the Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church Monday at 11am.
She really was a wonderful woman with a wonderful family. She leaves behind a daughter and a granddaughter.