Like father…like son

Published 7:49 am Tuesday, December 3, 2013

AHOSKIE – After Joe Jernigan, Sr. returned home to Aulander from honorably serving his country in the Korean Conflict in 1953 he spoke with an uncle who had been in the dry cleaning business in another state.

It must have been pretty good advice because it turned out to be one of the best talks of Jernigan’s life and the birth of a career that’s lasted a lifetime.

As the month of November closes, Jernigan Cleaners will celebrate 60 years in business in the Roanoke-Chowan area, but if there’s no cake or 60 candles to blow out, Joe, Sr. will not mind.

Jernigan’s Cleaners and Laundry first opened its doors in Aulander in the fall of 1953.

“In December 1953 I figured out I had more family coming on so I had to get more territory,” Jernigan recalls on a chilly and windy day at the Cleaners’ offices at 915 Jersey Street in Ahoskie. “So I went over to Northampton County, Woodland, and I started a route. From there I went and got a route in Murfreesboro at Chowan College (now University) in the early sixties.”

Jernigan never speaks of the business – now run by his son – without mentioning his wife, Barbara. He also would not have his picture made at the establishment on this day because he was not attired in appropriate neckwear.

“I always try to look professional,” he professes, looking you directly in the eye when he speaks as if reflecting on the cliché adage of ‘image is everything’.

“Right about that time between ’65 and ’67 I opened a place over in Conway,” Jernigan continued with his recollection. “We didn’t have any equipment; we just had a store there.”

After the second expansion in Northampton County, to Conway, two years later Jernigan opened his first dry cleaning plant in Ahoskie around 1967.

“I’d had a pickup store in Murfreesboro,” went his recollection. “And the folks in Murfreesboro didn’t like it that I came to Ahoskie before I went and put a plant in Murfreesboro because I was already over there.

“We were located on Memorial Drive, over by (what is now) Schewels Furniture Company, in that line of buildings,” he said.

From that location Jernigan moved not much farther away to what is now the Boyette & Robertson Insurance building

What changed for Jernigan’s business life next is what changed for fabric in America in the late sixties: the coming of wash-and-wear.

“That gave me a chance to fulfill my promise,” Jernigan contended, in noting how the cross-linking of acrylic, polyester, and microfibers would radicalize dry cleaning with the coming of no-iron durable press. “The dry cleaning business had changed and folks weren’t sending their clothes out like the used to. So I found the place in Ahoskie.”

Despite business being slowed, it didn’t stop Jernigan from thinking ahead. In 1975 he bought a competitor’s cleaners that were for sale in Rich Square, a move that his wife and business partner questioned at the time.

“I said, ‘Honey, I got us in this and I’m going to get us out’,” he says now. “You can’t sit down and cry the blues.”

The late seventies also saw a changing of the guard when Joe, Jr. – better known as Richard – was a student at Chowan.

“He came over and said he wanted to be a dry cleaner,” the elder Jernigan said. “I had two sons and I didn’t want either one to be a dry cleaner because there’s a better way of life.”

Jernigan’s success in Rich Square allowed him to square things with his creditors over the operation in Murfreesboro and close down his business there. The next expansion for him would be opening a Laundromat.

Richard finished his studies at Chowan and entered the business. Something his father reflects on with a great sense of satisfaction.

“He did very well,” says Joe, beaming with a father’s pride.

The elder Jernigan retired in 1994 after 41 years in the dry cleaning business. Richard, who began working for his father in 1979, now oversees everything from the building on Jersey Street which opened in the late nineties.

Along the way, Joe, Sr. served some 18 years on the Aulander Town Council, was vice-president – and later president – of the Aulander Ruritan Club, and held posts on the Mideast Commission and the Industrial Development Commission.

He’s a bit more cynical about dry cleaning and other small businesses these days because of globalization and the state of the economy. But he’s as stout as ever in his belief in family; whether in business or not.

“I even call so many of our dedicated employees ‘family’,” says Richard Jernigan. “That’s because in many ways they were our family because that’s the kind of work environment we’ve tried to have here.”

Integrity is something the younger Jernigan wants from all his employees.

“They had values before they came here,” he intones. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be working here.”

Unlike his mother, Richard’s wife, Brenda, is not in the dry cleaning business, but instead runs a hair salon (Kut-N-Up) in Ahoskie.

“We’re both in the service business,” Richard says. “She’s the type of spouse who understands what giving this type of service is about.”

And to give this type of service for Jernigan Cleaners has crossed many generations.

“I’ve got folks who come in here, some coming back from living away, and they’ll say their granddaddies used to always get their clothes done here,” Richard reflects. “I may not recall them but Daddy would and it’s a good feeling when you see that.

“If you’re not blessed,” Richard declared, “it’s hard to be here 60 years. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done because I always took pride in it.

“Then again,” he says as a huge grin floods his face and he glances over at his father, “I had a couple of pretty good teachers.”