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New owner continues legacy at Harby’s Hots

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A dozen men — most older than 65 with graying hair — sat clustered at tables at 9 a.m. Friday at Harby’s Hots.

Although members of this informal coffee club have changed since the diner was opened in 1980 by the late Kenneth J. “Harby” Harblin Jr., the bursts of laughter, memorable anecdotes and practical jokes will never leave.

Friday marked the final day the Harblin family owned the diner at 18958 outer Washington Street run by Mr. Harblin for 27 years. He died in May 2012.

“It feels bittersweet,” said Mr. Harblin’s daughter, Susan A. Dandrow, with pools of tears in her eyes. After taking over the diner from her father six years ago, Mrs. Dandrow and her husband, Gregory A., will sell it to Michael A. Cornell, whose father, Lyme resident Ronald A., was a good friend of Mr. Harblin.

Starting Monday, the diner will close for three weeks for renovations.

“Half of these guys here leave to Florida for the winter, and I cry every time they do because they’re like surrogate fathers,” Mrs. Dandrow said.

She said not coming to work every morning to do chores will be challenging.

“It’s going to be hard to come in here and not sweep the floors,” she said. Her dad “and I had talked about (selling Harby’s) before he passed away, and it felt like the right time.”

But the memory of the man dubbed “Harby” by his friends will live on.

As the group of men told stories Thursday about the legendary owner, a portrait of the man’s personality and what made him likable emerged.

“He was quite the character,” said Mr. Harblin’s son-in-law, Gregory A. “If you first came in here, you might think he was the biggest curmudgeon on the face of the Earth. But deep down he was a softy, a guy that would do anything for you. This diner was his baby, and it kept him going for 27 years. It made his livelihood.”

Friends who knew Mr. Harblin for decades made the source of his passion for Harby’s Hots obvious.

“We’d come here in the morning to solve all the world’s problems,” said 69-year-old Daniel J. O’Leary, who met Mr. Harblin in 1972 while operating Harblin Auto Sales on the property. “He led all of the discussions. He was the guy who would start a rumor about something, and then it would come back two hours later totally different and better.”

A burst of laughter ensued. Harby’s was — and still is — a place for these men to unwind together from the stresses of daily life.

“This is the only place I can come to and have a good laugh,” said David G. Porter, 77.

Laughter seemed to break the ice among the men Friday morning. Mr. O’Leary said one day the late Stephen Kuszio — owner of the Carolyn Pontiac dealership on outer Washington Street for 33 years — stopped by the diner to buy a hot dog. What took place surprised everyone.

“They were $1, but he didn’t have enough change,” Mr. O’Leary said. “But he really wanted that hot dog, so Harby took a bite out of it and gave it back.”

Because no cheese or french fries were available at the diner, Mr. O’Leary said, Mr. Harblin told customers who wanted cheeseburgers to go to McDonald’s instead.

“But his burgers are an inch-and-a-half thick,” he quipped.

Carl H. Lamica, 81, added Mr. Harblin always engineered practical jokes.

“My wife and I went out to dinner once, and she had just removed the frames for her glasses,” he said. She asked “‘Do you notice anything different about me?’ I responded, ‘When did you start wearing glasses?’ To this day, my wife still doesn’t realize I was set up by Harby” to do the prank.

Though some might remember her father as a stern man, Mrs. Dandrow said, he stuck to his principles and put his family first. Written by Mr. Harblin on a poster in permanent marker, for example, is a personal aphorism that captures what the man stood for: “A good name is the greatest treasure a man can have.”

“A salesman who comes here might call him the meanest SOB in the world, but he was the biggest teddy bear for his family,” Mrs. Dandrow said.

As the new owner, Mr. Cornell plans to add homemade ice cream while keeping the rest of the menu the same. A John Deere tractor from the 1940s will churn the ice cream, and he hopes it will add to the diner’s hometown aura.

“The tractor has two churns on it and a big belt, and we’ll make the ice cream outside,” he said.

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