Po' Boys owner was reliable source of food, advice

CHAMPAIGN – Arnold Yarber was "Arnie" to football coaches, millionaires, scores of Champaign and Illini athletes, and untold thousands who loved his grandmother's barbeque recipe – hold the tomato sauce.

He'd wanted to be a chiropractor, and worked a number of jobs for the state and the University of Illinois, but most people knew him as the owner of Po' Boys, a restaurant on the north edge of downtown Champaign that had a cult following for more than half a century.

Had he been a chiropractor, he'd never have been able to invite Illini coaches and fans into the kitchen for "a taste," his code for a beverage containing grain alcohol.

"I always liked talking to Arnie because he had such a great perspective on life," said former Illini coach Ron Turner, now the offensive coordinator for the Bears. "He read people very well and had a good understanding of the human condition. I loved the food, but I went there more for the companionship."

Mr. Yarber, 87, of Champaign died Thursday evening at Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Heath and Vaughn Funeral Home, 201 N. Elm St., C. Burial will be in Mount Hope Cemetery, Champaign.

Visitation will be from 6 to 8 p.m. today at the funeral home.

The Champaign football and baseball standout always loved playing sports and talking about sports, but he loved his grandmother even more. She raised him, and he worried about her, especially her asthma.

In 2003, Franklin Middle School students interviewed Mr. Yarber for an oral history project, which was aired on WILL-AM.

"I was delivering ice here in Champaign," he told the students, "and the guy told me about chiropracting and that it was a way of curing people without medication, and I didn't believe him, so I ... started looking into things.

"And I discovered what you could do with chiropractic. ... My grandmother was 70 years old at that time, and she had asthma very, very bad, and I learned how to adjust her, and to relieve her asthma. There were many different things you could do. And I really got interested in it. ... (But) coming up in that era going to school, the chiropractic school did not accept American Negroes."

He did find a school to accept him, though, in Dayton, Ohio, and that's where he found his wife, Ada, better known as Red.

He moved to Denver to work in a hospital, Ada Yarber said, and sent for her. They were married on Jan. 1, 1950, in Denver.

The chiropractic idea didn't work out, and in the first few years of their marriage, Mr. Yarber was searching for a job that would support a family. He also had some challenges trying to get veterans' benefits for a World War II injury, his wife said.

He served in the Coast Guard on the USS Wakefield, where black sailors were limited to duties like cooking and cleaning, he said in the oral history.

In September 1942, the Wakefield was in a convoy about 350 miles from Boston when a fire rapidly spread through the decks.

The passengers and crew were rescued, but not before Mr. Yarber took it upon himself to grab a hose to cool down artillery shells in danger of exploding.

One of them detonated, leading to ulcers on both legs that didn't heal well.

Two years into the marriage, Arnie and Ada decided there was a niche for barbecue, which was only sold locally during the summertime.

"Arnie's grandmother had the recipe. She taught him a lot. So we decided to try it year-round," Ada said. "The logo on Po' Boys was 'where friends and loved ones meet,' and that was how he wanted it."

An early customer was Charlie Younger, a Champaign High School athlete, who started regularly going to Po' Boys in 1955, when it was still a one-room operation. He continued "to gnaw on a rib" while he lettered at the UI, and when he started a local insurance agency.

He says the food was great, and Ada was a bonus.

"Red was gorgeous; the Illini would come in to look at Red," Younger recalled.

They came to Arnie for the conversation, and it flowed like wine.

"If you got invited into the back room, that was pretty special," Younger said.

When it came to football, Mr. Yarber knew whereof he spoke. He was a multisport athlete at Champaign and once kicked a football into the street in a game at McKinley Field.

Mr. Yarber also worked as an Illini trainer for three years in the 1950s, using his chiropractic knowledge.

"He went to every practice and practically every game for 50 years," his wife said.

Mr. Yarber mentored local greats like J.C. Caroline, and offered advice to the coaches.

Soon, Po' Boys became a second home to the football team.

Younger says eating at Po' Boys could be an adventure, even for regulars. He recalled a particular waitress named Dorothy.

When she worked there, "the good news was we'd have a sandwich ready even if there was a line," he said. "The bad news was we never knew what it was going to be."

Also, Younger said, for all of Mr. Yarber's expertise with any kind of meat, even "a deep-fried pig snout," his experiments with cuisine of other cultures could be perilous.

"He fancied himself a great taco cooker, too," Younger said.

Urbana school Superintendent Preston Williams said he picked up the inside scoop at Po' Boys.

"Mr. Yarber was always great for a story, typically about the UI football team, usually some information that only insiders had about something that occurred, from when he was a trainer," he said. "Once you met him, you had a friend for life. If you were privileged to get to the back, that's where the real business took place."

Dan Hamelberg of Champaign was a friend for 40 years.

"Every Friday night I was in town, everyone knew where to find me," Hamelberg said. "I'd get there early in the evening, stay until close, and then Arnie put his money in a big bag and we'd walk two doors down to his house, sit on the porch, and solve all the problems of the world."

Everybody went by first names in his kitchen, no matter how successful or prominent, Hamelberg said.

"It didn't matter who you were, what color you were, whether you were rich or poor, what you did, it was everybody by first name. He was the master of ceremonies, introducing everybody and telling them how the game should have been played," he said.

Hamelberg recalled a memorable road trip with Mr. Yarber when Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo flew his friend to Phoenix for the debut of what was then called Bank One Ballpark.

"Colangelo paid for everything for three days," he said.

Ada said Mr. Yarber loved his restaurant, and always showed up after their son Arnold Jr. took over, but he didn't have many regrets when he closed the place on Columbia in December 2006.

"He was rich in friends. But his health had begun to fail, and we always ran it as a hobby, anyway," she said.

"I'm going to miss his advice," Turner said.

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