By David J. Coehrs
Expositor Features Editor
When C.J. Foutz was 14, barely experienced, and looking for work, it was Wauseon restaurant owner John Tiffany who took a chance on him, hiring him as a dishwasher.
Now the manager of Tiffany’s Cafe, Foutz said his boss mentored him and helped him to realize his love for the restaurant business.
“He was always concerned about what was going on in your life, and was genuine about it,” Foutz said.
John Spencer Tiffany, 54, will be buried today in Wauseon Union Cemetery. He died April 17 following complications from surgery at the Fulton County Health Center.
Family members, friends, colleagues, and his customers are remembering Tiffany as a friendly, good-natured man who found passion in his careers as a restaurateur and as an educator at Wauseon High School.
“He was just a real good person to have around,” said Keith Leatherman, Wauseon High School principal.
Born March 1, 1960, in Durand, Wisc., Tiffany began earning his business chops early in Wauseon as a paperboy with a sizable route. He also worked at the former Sterling Family Restaurant on Fulton Street, and played trumpet in the high school marching band.
Tiffany moved on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in restaurant management from the Ohio State University and a Masters of Education from Bowling Green State University. Fulfilling his love of restaurant work, he took jobs in various eateries around the Columbus area before returning to Wauseon. He opened Tiffany’s Cafe about a decade ago.
“That was his dream, to have his own place,” said his brother, Blair Tiffany. “And that was exactly the kind of place he wanted: a small-town diner where everybody knew your name. He loved seeing the regulars come in, and chatted with them. He put in a lot of hours but he didn’t mind. That was his life.”
Calling Tiffany “just a small-town boy,” his brother added: “He loved people; he loved making them happy. And being a small-town person, (the restaurant) was his way of keeping his fingers on the pulse of Wauseon.”
One day, after a cook had quit, Tiffany pulled Foutz from his dishwashing duties and offered to let him fix a breakfast order of eggs over easy.
“He made a bet with me, that if I did it right he would let me wear my hat backwards,” at a time when wearing a hat that way was considered a sign of rebellious disrespect, Foutz recalled. He successfully cooked the order, and Tiffany kept his word.
“That’s how he motivated me to do it on the first try,” Foutz said. “If anyone commented on my hat, John would just explain.”
Tiffany taught the teen the basics of cooking and mentored him on operating a restaurant. “He worked around my crazy schedule, and he still managed to fit me in there. He helped me discover what I’m truly great at: restaurant work,” Foutz said.
He said his boss particularly taught him to appreciate the enjoyment customers express for his cooking.
“People like John and myself understand the joy of watching someone who’s filled up just a little too much because it was that good. The look on their face is priceless,” he said.
Tiffany was one of the happiest people he’d ever met, Foutz said. The cafe owner was always chatting up customers, and would lend a hand where necessary, whether busing tables, washing dishes, or peeling potatoes.
He said his good-hearted boss employed many teens over the years, “just giving them an opportunity to make a little something for themselves and get a taste of the world before they go out there. He could hold out longer than your average person when it came to patience.”
He described Tiffany as a music buff who considered the Beatles a favorite group but listened to every genre, from ’90s alternative to late ’80s punk rock.
And he had a goofy sense of humor, “and was an easy guy to make laugh,” Foutz said. “He will be strongly missed.”
The 2008 Wauseon High School graduate was also a freshman science student of Tiffany’s, who taught for years while simultaneously operating his cafe. Three years ago, he became the high school’s computer technology instructor.
As an educator, Tiffany was very committed to his students, Leatherman said.
“He had a very good rapport with kids. They felt very comfortable in his classroom,” he said.
When Tiffany took on computer science he fully embraced the technology. He also fully embraced the welfare of his students, greeting them from the hallway as they arrived for the daily session.
“He was a very dedicated teacher. He made you feel very comfortable to talk to, always showed concern for you,” Leatherman said. “He always wanted to make sure you were doing okay.”
“They loved their Mr. T,” his brother Blair said of Tiffany’s students.
During Spirit Week, the precursor to Homecoming, Tiffany was a staff member who always participated, Leatherman said.
He said the two had conversations about non-work related subjects, during which he discovered Tiffany was a Green Bay Packers fan.
“Nothing made us happier than we were all together watching a game,” Blair said of his family. “It was always the Packers or the (Detroit) Tigers.”
Tiffany was a laid-back family man with a dry sense of humor, who considered mentoring young people a very important part of his life, his brother said. He was a perfect brother and son who was adored by his nieces and nephews.
“Anytime they would visit…every trip always included a trip to Tiffany’s for breakfast. They absolutely loved being there. One of them would always request teddy bear shaped pancakes, and he always made them,” Blair recalled.
He fondly remembered when Tiffany bought a Jaguar automobile two years ago, a model he said he had always wanted to drive.
“You know, it can be hard to get parts for those,” Blair said. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ He saw one for sale, so he bought it. Nothing ever happened to it so I could say, ‘I told you so.’”
In recent years, Tiffany liked to sit back among his pet cats and play the ukulele “That was a kind of private thing he had to relax with,” Blair said.
He also enjoyed traveling the region with his fiance, Sonia Potts, to attend concerts. Together, they visited music venues in Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Louisville, Ky., to name a few. Tiffany was a fan of the punk rock band Green Day, had recently attended a B.B. King concert in Indiana, and was planning with Potts to see Ringo Starr in concert at the Toledo Zoo Amphitheater.
Potts said Tiffany had many interests, and was especially entranced with the country of Iceland, where his family originated. Last year, he and his mother went to a festival in North Dakota celebrating people with Icelandic ancestors.
Potts said she and Tiffany became engaged at Christmas, and planned to marry this summer.
“He was very caring and quirky. He had the biggest personality. He was never in a bad mood, always upbeat and positive,” she said.
Wauseon Mayor Doug Shaw said Tiffany was active in the revitalization of the downtown area, and operated a nice restaurant that drew people in with its homey atmosphere.
“It’s definitely a loss to the community. My heart goes out to him and his family,” he said.
Tiffany is also survived by his son, Alexander John Tiffany; his mother, Norma Tiffany; siblings Susan Shore of Crystal Lake, Ill., Sandy (John) Penvose of Tampa, Fla., and Lisa (Todd) Seiler of Montpelier, and many nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death earlier this year by his father, Spencer Tiffany.