A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

People of NKY: Wilma Mounce-Popp has been taking care of her friends at ‘her’ Skyline Chili for 46 years

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune reporter

In March of 1967, the Covington Internal Revenue Service opened for business in its enormous flat-topped building. At the time, it was considered a life-saver for the city; in the throes of a sadly depressed reality after booming mid-twentieth century prosperity.

Two thousand people went to work at the top of 4th and Russell streets every day.  Optimism for the future success of the city was riding on this meaty bone of payroll tax revenue tossed out by the federal government.

Wilma Mounce-Popp (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Skyline Chili, an iconic Cincinnati food specialty, had opened a location in Covington around that time and was no doubt benefitting from its share of those 2000 mouths that needed to be fed at lunch every day.  The commercial area around the exit ramp from the Brent Spence Bridge (which was also very new at the time) was not the hotbed of fast food everything that it has become since then.

The IRS and Skyline, with a few other small restaurants, bars and mom & pop groceries were about the only things going on in Covington north of Fourth Street.

Wilma Mounce-Popp remembers this time first hand. She had graduated from Ludlow High School in 1970, gotten married and was looking for a job. Like many others, she went to the IRS processing center to apply. She worked there for a short time, but it was seasonal work and she needed more to do and more money coming in.

Her attentions shifted to Skyline Chili. So, right before Labor Day in 1973, she went in to apply. She started right away, and that was the beginning of a 46-year career in the block southwest of Philadelphia and Third St.

At the time, even though she was raising her own family of three boys, little did she know what an assortment of other unique families she would become a part of—many, many families.

Naturally, her co-workers were a second family. They were there for her during pregnancies, divorces and all of the curve balls that life throws.  It was a congenial group that hung together. This dynamic changed a little when corporate took back the franchise about 15 years ago (a few left), but Wilma stayed and won over another family of new co-workers and manager.

The old Skyline gang during the franchise years. Wilma is in the back row on the right. (Photo provided by Wilma Mounce-Popp)

Groups of customers became family. Ten model train enthusiasts have met at Skyline every week for twenty years. Wilma got to know them well. At times, she attended church with them, and ultimately; funerals. There are four members remaining. It is another kind of family going through the unavoidable passing of time.

A long-time customer from the very beginning, Steve Smith, is part of a generational family story. Steve and friend Jack were making a project of hitting all of the local Chili parlors. Monday was the designated day, as Jack had decided that that was the day that the chili was the freshest. They hit the Covington Skyline. Wilma became their server, and that was the end of all of the other chili parlors.

A relationship was forged, and the Monday chili group expanded to an average of four to six attendees each week. Wilma, always remembering everyone’s order, and with her true interest in her customer’s well being, connected with them on a level above and beyond the customer/server relationship.

She knew about their illnesses, family issues and would call them to see if all was OK. She was like an extra mom, even though she was a contemporary.

One regular in this group, Harold Robinson, who was so attached to this Skyline family that even when he got older and couldn’t drive, had his son Joe, a Cincinnati fireman, bring him to the Monday lunch.

Again, in time, Harold passed. In a sentimental tribute to him and his love of the Monday Wilma/chili ritual, Joe has made it HIS ritual. And when his own children are available, they join him, too.

Then, there is the Lexus family. Yes, I mean the luxury car dealership right out Skyline’s back door. They moved in about 15 years ago.

The front doors of the oldest Skyline in Northern Kentucky. This is WILMA’S Skyline. (Photo by Ginger Dawson)

Wilma and Lexus have a more “professional” relationship. Having waited on many, many of the staff at Lexus, they are well aware of her ability to charm. It is precisely this engaging, yet professional, manner that has caused the folks at Lexus to try to steal her away from Skyline and come to work for them. They have been on her about this ever since they took up residence.

Wilma has resisted this offer because she says if they got to know her better, it might sour their friendship! I find this hard to believe. I think the real story is probably because she would miss her Skyline customers.

She buys cars from Lexus, even though she prefers used Mazdas. They take care of all of her servicing and are there for her when the inevitable car emergency happens.

Now these families are just the few that I know of. I’m sure there are many others.

Wilma, herself, was raised in an old-school family. Accountability, integrity and standing up for oneself were important virtues. She embodies this, and it is a palpable part of her personality. These qualities, combined with her feisty, endearing sense of humor make for an irresistible charisma.

There’s not just a little orneriness there, either.

This Skyline is WILMA’S Skyline. She is clear about this, and everyone from co-workers to customers to corporate are aware of it. She IS the longest tenured employee of Skyline corporate. Seniority claims its perch!

Another unique perspective that Wilma’s long career has given her is an overview of Skyline’s fashion archive. She has first-hand experience of how the style of server uniforms have evolved over the years.

The Covington IRS building getting ready to open, around 1967. (Photo from Kenton Co. Library, “Faces and Places”)

Early on, it was old-school white dresses with white shoes. Then, things loosened up a bit and white pantsuits were allowed—still with the white shoes. Getting even looser, choice was given for either a pink or blue uniform—with white shoes.

Uniforms continued to evolve, and finally black pants and white shirts (sometimes with goofy little ties, according to Wilma) were adopted and the white shoes were finally put out to pasture in favor of black shoes with non-skid soles.

Today, the uniform of a blue t-shirt with the Skyline logo is worn, and much to Wilma’s dismay, corporate has sanctioned the wearing of BLUE JEANS. This is not acceptable to her. She feels it is disrespectful to the customers, and I am quite certain it offends her sense of personal dignity. The T shirt was hard enough to accept.

Much has changed over the past forty-six years. Wilma witnessed the decline of Covington, the arrival of the IRS and a city struggling to gain a foothold. She has also seen the city recover in a surprising renaissance and watched the flat-topped building at the top of Fourth and Russell fold tent.  It is quite a timeline to witness first hand; with such continuity.

I asked her that if she had wanted to do anything else with her life, what would it have been? She mused that if she had stayed at the IRS, she could be retired now!

I think she was kidding. I can’t imagine her wanting to work behind a desk without her public. It is clearly obvious that many, many people would have missed having such a treasured friend had she done that.

Ginger Dawson writes about people — the neighbors you need to know and people you need to meet and understand. If you have ideas for subjects please share them with Ginger at ginger@fuse.net.

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  1. tom miller says:

    Wilma and another long-time employee, Terry, have been serving me the exact same lunch once a week for about 20 years. I come in, say hello, sit down — and 3 minutes later my food is in front of me without ever having to order it! BLESS YOU WILMA!

  2. Brittiny Morgan says:

    I Love this lady!!!! I was first her neighbor then her flower girl, she has always had a kind heart! There are not a lot of good people in this world like her! She is an amazing person, and beautiful inside and out!!!!

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