Restaurateur Clary Milburn was born on October 10, 1940, in Opelousas, Louisiana, and attended schools within the Opelousas school district. The son of sharecroppers, Milburn experienced a lifestyle of hard work firsthand. In 1957, Milburn left Louisiana and moved to Galveston and acquired a position with the maintenance department at John Sealy Hospital at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and was later transferred to John Sealy’s Hospitality Shop, the hospital’s restaurant.
Clary’s RestaurantAfter his initial introduction to the foodservice industry at the hospitality shop, Milburn took his strong work ethic to Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant and Pelican Club, a private member’s only dining area within the historic seawall restaurant. It was an era when the Pelican Club was known for their customer service as well as their delicious seafood and in that environment, Milburn excelled. He was often described as the “best of the best” of an elite group of waiters selected to work the club. While he worked for the Gaidos family, Milburn also worked part-time as a cook at the Jack Tar Hotel located across from Stewart Beach. While he maintained those two jobs, he also launched his own janitorial business, which eventually grew to serve more than 150 clients.
In 1977, Milburn opened Clary’s Seafood Restaurant. With encouragement from business partner Harry Fiegel and several loyal customers, Milburn combined his experience and exceptional culinary knowledge to embark on a business adventure that would grow to legendary status. The kitchen was completed first which allowed Milburn to operate as a catering service to the many businesses located on Port Industrial (Harborside) Boulevard. This created a customer base that was ready-made when the restaurant opened its doors for business later that year. Located at 8509 Teichman Road, the location of the restaurant was unique and not in close proximity to the seawall where tourists flocked. Instead, it was off the beaten path, quietly situated on Offatts Bayou close to the Galveston Causeway. Customers in the know could easily drop by on the way in or out of town. The location also made it easy for mainlanders to hop onto the island for an excellent meal followed by a quick trip back home once finished.
Milburn learned a lot about cooking after he moved to Galveston, but he had a good foundation built from countless family meals served up back in Louisiana, where he learned how to add that Cajun flair and flavor to the seafood he served. The menu at Clary’s reflected that influence and offered a variety of Louisiana-style dishes that included gumbo, shrimp, oysters, and fish cooked in a variety of ways. Everything was delicious but it was the service and ambiance that customers remembered. Milburn exemplified southern hospitality and that brought back his loyal followers just as much as the exquisite food. His ability to remember returning guests and their previous menu selection always made for an interesting discussion as Milburn put as much effort into his interpersonal communication skills as his talented chefs did crafting meals in the kitchen. A great conversation starter when you entered the restaurant were the photographs of Milburn’s celebrity patrons that decorated the restaurant walls. The photographic tributes began when Milburn’s brother, Rod, won a gold medal at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games and his stepson, Charles Alexander, Jr., led Galveston Ball High to the 1975 Texas UIL AAAA Track & Field Championship. Alexander would eventually be drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and participated in Super Bowl XVI in 1982. Whenever he got hungry for some great Cajun seafood, Alexander made the trip to Galveston accompanied by his two daughters. Alexander later perfected C’Mon Man Cajun Seasoning and credited Milburn and step-brother, Dexter, with helping him perfect the sauce marketed throughout Texas and Louisiana.
Milburn and his wife, Doris, were the parents of seven children, many of which, worked in the family restaurant. Son Dwayne started working for his dad at age six and learned the foundation of his father’s service principles at an early age. Dexter Milburn started cooking for his father’s restaurant during his sophomore year at Ball High School. Dexter credited his father with teaching him valuable lessons that keep him in demand as a chef to this day. From 1979 to 1992, Milburn’s third son, Wayne, served as the restaurant manager. With food and drink covered by his sons, Milburn’s daughters, Angela Thomas and Rosetta Cooper managed the restaurant office. The family recalls that the restaurant’s seafood-eggplant dressing was a special favorite among Milburn’s customers. The eggplant was mixed with shrimp, crab meat, and a secret seasoning that made it one of the restaurant’s most popular side dishes. Originally offered only at catered and private events, Milburn would occasionally offer the dish to his restaurant patrons and it became so popular, Milburn added it to the restaurant’s menu.
Robert E. Dowdy Sr., retired senior pastor at The Church of the Living God in Galveston, met Milburn in 1982. After the Milburn family began attending services at Dowdy’s church, the two men became fast friends. Every summer, when the congregation’s youth attended church camp, Milburn insisted on helping to provide meals for the campers. Dowdy and Milburn built a strong bond over the years, and to this date in his pastoral study, Reverend Dowdy has a photograph of his friend, Clary Milburn, on his wall.
In early September 2008, Milburn had an uneasy feeling about an approaching hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico named Ike. He had his daughter, Rosetta, go to the restaurant and pick up important papers and documents. As the restaurant’s location on Offatts Bayou was later identified as ground zero for the storm’s high water level, the restaurant was flooded with over six feet of water from the storm’s surge. It was a long recovery for both the business and staff but after a year of hard work, the restaurant reopened. By 2015, Milburn’s health started to fail and he was forced to spend less time at the restaurant. His absence was reflected in the decline of patrons so family members made the difficult decision to close the business that December. A month later, on January 31, 2016, Clary Milburn passed away surrounded by his loving family. Reverend Dowdy officiated the funeral service, held at Moody Memorial Methodist Church, followed by burial at Forest Park East Cemetery in Webster, Texas.
The life of Clary Milburn will live on in the lives of those who were fortunate enough to spend time with him. He had the extremely rare ability to transcend race, political ideology, gender, and social class. The man, Clary Milburn, and his restaurant, Clary’s, passed into eternity in close proximity, and although both the man and the establishment are greatly missed, Clary Milburn is remembered as the standard for what is great within humanity.
Galveston Historical Foundation