Doris Gilles leaves behind a legacy
Back in the 1940's, Doris Curler wore her starched-white carhop uniform well at Gilles Custard Stand on Bluemound Road in Milwaukee.
It definitely caught the eye of Tom Gilles, brother of Paul Gilles, who owned the drive-in that would soon became an iconic, frozen-treat fixture in the city, especially on warm summer nights when hot rods with their tops down cruised the scene.
This was during the war years, and while Doris and Tom worked together, they never dated before Tom left to join the Navy.
"It was some time later when he came back from the service and bumped into her downtown that they got to talking," said their daughter Joanne Theyerl of Fond du Lac. "He told her there were no good girls in the world and she told him there is one."
That was the beginning of the end, Tom says. Drawn to her freckles, pigtails and red ribbons, he'd take Doris down to the corner bar for a beer. She thought he was funny.
Tom and Doris Gilles were married in 1950 and celebrated 65 years together this past February. They raised five children and built a legacy in Fond du Lac through a little drive-in custard stand that packs in the cars each year on opening day, no matter how much snow is on the ground.
Doris Gilles passed away at the age of 89, on July 13 at St. Francis Home, where she had been struggling with health issues. Though she was small in stature, with legs that wouldn't quit, she left a lasting impression on the citizens of Fond du Lac and her family, instilling in them her strong work ethic and the notion that you give back to a community that is good to you.
In 1949, the year prior to their marriage Tom opened the Gilles Custard stand on South Main Street on advice from a salesman he met who told him Fond du Lac would be a good location for a business. When the drive-in closed down for the winter, Tom headed back home to Milwaukee and his fiancé Doris, who was working for an accountant at the time.
"She said let me see your books, and I showed her my box of receipts, which was a real mess," Tom said. "She said to me 'you are never touching these again,'" Tom recalls.
The newlyweds set up house in a small back room in the drive-in, now used as an office. It only had enough space for a double bed and a dresser.
"Those first years they made no money and tried to sell the place but no one would buy it," Joanne said.
Luck turned their way when Highway 41 was rerouted and business started to take off. Word spread that there was something about Gilles custard that was worth the ride.
While the Milwaukee stand had been in operation since 1938, Tom Gilles decided to devise his own recipe for custard, with help from members of Fond du Lac's Galloway family, said Jim Gilles, who took over the drive-in when his dad retired in 1975.
"We use a very special vanilla extract and we still use the original custard machine," Jim said.
When Doris became pregnant, she told her husband she didn't want the customers at Gilles to see her in the 'family way" so Tom took care of that by sticking signs in the window advertising food selections, just big enough to hide Doris from above the waist down. The signs remain in the window to this day.
The Gilles children came along in succession: John in '54, Jim in '55, Mary in '56 and Joanne in '58. After a break the youngest, Chris, brought up the tail end in 1965.
"My wife loved children and wherever we went we had a car full," Tom says. "Every summer our kids would bring their friends, and we'd load the station wagon and head up to the cottage."
Doris didn't believe in using credit cards and expected her own brood to earn their way, putting half their paycheck in the bank once they started working. If they wanted a bicycle, they had to pay for half the cost.
"My mom was full of energy and very smart — both my parents were incredibly hard-working," Jim said. "They worked 13-hour days and expected all of us to pitch in when we were old enough."
Joanne describes her mom as a modest, humble woman, who wasn't partial to bragging.
"Her passion was motherhood, being involved in volunteering in our schools," Joanne said. Doris gave her time to local charities, helped with Mobile Meal, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and served the hungry at Loaves and Fishes. She even coached a few games of Little League, out of necessity.
Doris always said that hard work pays off and that bigger isn't always better. She didn't want to expand the business because her father was a carpenter and had lost his housing investments during the Great Depression.
"She wasn't a woman that needed a man to do things for her," Joanne said. "She taught me independence and self-sufficiency."
"She was a great lady," Tom said, "I could not have done what I have in life without her."
Reach Sharon Roznik at email@example.com or 920-907-7936; on Twitter: @sharonroznik.