At the table: The McLaurin family breaks bread

MMP_2848-Editby Andrea Weigl
photographs by Missy McLamb


Many families cannot get along. One sibling doesn’t talk to another; the daughters-in-law can’t be in the same room; someone has never forgiven another for a slight long ago. Tension crackles, and the discord makes family get-togethers difficult, even dreaded.

The McLaurins are not one of those families.

You may not recognize their name, but you know what they do. If you’ve ever parked a car at the state fair; at a Duke, Carolina, or N.C. State home football game; or in downtown Durham, Raleigh or Asheville – you most likely parked it in a McLaurin-managed lot or deck.

It’s a company with a broad reach, run by a tight-knit clan.

Founded by William McLaurin in 1947 with a small lot behind the former Sir Walter Raleigh hotel in downtown Raleigh, the enterprise is now run by five of his six children. They manage more than 50,000 parking spaces across the state, and parking for any number of special events.

William McLaurin used stables full of horses to teach his children at an early age to work hard, work together and think for themselves. Today, the lessons learned in the family’s stables years ago are as ingrained as the bond that links them in work and play, and brings them together for weekly family feasts.

Regina, the oldest at 65, is the chief financial officer. Bill, 63, manages contracts with institutions like hospitals. Steve, 59, manages special events from the state fair to High Point’s furniture market. Kristy Dixon, 51, is president. And Shannon Thornburg, the youngest at 49, manages the company’s Asheville office. (Her husband is Dr. Gene Thornburg, a Harvard-educated orthopedic surgeon and son of former N.C. Attorney General and federal judge, Lacy Thornburg.) Megan Poole, 56, is a retired school teacher and the only sibling who doesn’t work for the company.

Every Sunday afternoon, these siblings, their kids (four of whom also work full time for the family business), and any other McLaurins who are available gather for lunch at the family barn.  Situated in a horse pasture on the family’s 22-acre spread off Holt Road in Apex, the barn is a central meeting spot. Three of the siblings have built homes next to each other on the property, which is also home to four horses.

MMP_2842-EditThe Sunday lunch tradition was started in the 1970s by their father. He used to host the family meal in an apartment above the stables on his 43-acre farm off High House Road. The tradition continued when the family migrated in the late 1980s to the land they now own in Apex.

“It was something my dad thought was really important, and we just kind of carried it on,” said Kristy Dixon.

Many of the siblings say that the weekly meal has helped build relationships among their children. “I know my children are closer to their cousins than I was to my cousins,” Bill McLaurin said.

In the modest kitchen and multi-purpose room attached to the barn are mementos that pay tribute to this family legacy. A portrait of their father hangs on the wall between two collages of family snapshots. One shows the second generation: The six siblings as children, riding horses; and their former home off High House Road. In a second photo collage are the third generation as infants in their mothers’ arms, and as children in horse show classes and competitions.

Family style

Regina and her 84-year-old mother, Martha, are the first to arrive on this Sunday in November. Regina sets out sliced tomatoes and pimento cheese with celery sticks on the kitchen counter that will serve as a buffet. Meanwhile, Martha, who lives at Glenaire retirement community in Cary, sits on a couch, crocheting one of the 640-plus baby bonnets she has made for the newborns at WakeMed’s Cary hospital.

Kristy walks in with her 59-year-old husband, Billy. The sisters, who both live in Cary, note that they are the first to arrive but live the farthest away. “Steve is always late,” Regina points out, though he lives 100 yards away.

It’s all very casual. Everyone – in jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, ball caps – gradually appears.  When all the food has arrived, the 16 family members line up for the homemade lunch buffet:  fruit salad, bread, radishes, cucumbers, peppers, pickles, sautéed squash, corn, green beans and Megan’s famous chicken and dumplings. To drink, there is iced tea and pink lemonade.

MMP_2978-EditEach week, one family makes the main dish, and the head cook assigns side dishes and dessert to the other families. Each family is known for certain dishes: Megan for her chicken and dumplings; Regina for her ribs; Bill’s wife, Sally, 60, for her shrimp gumbo; Steve and his wife, Marian, 58, for feasts of crab legs or steak; and Kristy and her husband, Billy, for their vinegary barbecue.

And when it’s your birthday, you get to request a cake, often made by Megan, who is described by many as the family’s best cook. Bill and his family ask for his grandmother’s caramel cake. Kristy’s family loves the six-layer yellow cake with chocolate candy icing. Steve’s family requests a Hershey’s cake with candy bars folded into the frosting.

Showing off his heaping dinner plate, Steve says, “We get full plates.”

An education 

William McLaurin, who died in 1995, made sure his children had full plates between school and taking care of the family’s horses. In 1958, McLaurin was profiled in The News & Observer as a Tar Heel of the Week: “What does he like to do in his spare time? Ride horses and teach his children to think for themselves,” the article said. That was when McLaurin owned a 25-acre horse farm off Buck Jones Road in West Raleigh. The children were expected to feed and water the horses and clean the stables every day. After school, Kristy recalls: “We had 30 minutes to change and get down there.”

Regina, 10 at the time, recalls one snowy day asking her father if he would save them a frigid half-mile walk down to the stables. Her father told her: “If I feed the horses today, I’ll put an ad in the paper tomorrow and sell every one of them.” That was the last time she asked.

Eventually, all six children were competing in horse shows. Most weekends from May to November, the family would travel to shows in a five-state area. The older children who had drivers’ licenses could be expected to drive ahead to a show with a truck and trailer full of horses without their parents. One time, Bill recalls, it took three days for him and Steve to drive back from Nashville through a snowstorm.

If the truck broke down or there was a flat tire, Regina says: “We didn’t have cell phones. You couldn’t call your parents when things went wrong. You had to actually solve a problem.”

By the time Bill was a sophomore at N.C. State, his father had turned over the responsibility of the stables and what had become a side business in parking to his children. Bill was the de facto CEO. In a 1969 N&O article about the family stables, William McLaurin said about his children: “I often get concerned that they…work too hard, but the way they handle themselves and their responsibilities and what they are learning is something that no university in the world could teach them.”

The siblings attribute their familial and corporate harmony to those long hard days of work in the stables.

“The fact that we worked together with the horses when we were growing up kind of pulled us together,” Bill says. “We got along – I don’t mean we got along every day… It made it a lot easier when we went into the parking business. We kind of had the expectation that everybody would get along.”

They each respect one another’s area of expertise, says Kristy, the company president. “I went back to school to get my MBA,” she says. “I didn’t think that would give me any credibility with my siblings. But it actually did.”

MMP_2778-EditBreaking bread

On three long tables outside next to a horse pasture, the family sits down to eat. Megan’s 23-year-old son, Mark, says the blessing. As the clatter of forks begins, the conversation among aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings turns to the previous day’s football game between N.C. State and Wake Forest. The Wolfpack trounced the Demon Deacons, 37-6. They talk about the horses: Copper, Bud, Cider, and Marybelle. And of course, they talk about parking.

Laughter erupts when Kristy’s 23-year-old son Chase, who works for the company, suggests parking-themed tattoos: “Parking: $10,” “Lot full,” and “No thru traffic.” And the cousins talk about getting that call from their uncle Steve about working special events, sometimes at the last minute. Mark, one of Megan’s sons, says Steve’s calls always start the same way: “Hey, what are you doing?”

It’s surprising to the McLaurins that so many of them ended up working for the family business. The second generation folks says their father never pressured them to join it. Only Steve was recruited his senior year in college; the others found their own path there.

What the McLaurin family business will look like in the future isn’t clear yet to the four sibling executives. They realize that a tight-knit group of brothers and sisters running a business is different than cousins running a business.

There’s no question that for all of them, these Sunday lunches are an important part of their lives, and a way to take a break from the corporate atmosphere that many of them share.

“It’s good to see everybody,” says Chase, who helps manage the city of Raleigh’s parking decks. “It’s nice to talk about things other than parking.”

After clearing the plates, the family digs into Sally’s deluxe chocolate brownies with mini-marshmallows. The moms pack up leftovers for their children to take home. They explain the family photos on the wall. They pore through a collection of old newspaper clippings about their patriarch.

And just as people are starting to pack up to leave, Steve’s 25-year-old daughter, Meredith, asks if she can take Copper, the family’s penny-colored horse, out for a ride.


Megan Poole’s Chicken and Dumplings

1 whole chicken

3 bone-in chicken breasts

3 chicken bouillon cubes

3 (24-ounce) boxes of Anne’s Flat Dumplings

1 (32-ounce) container of chicken broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the whole chicken and chicken breasts in a large stock pot with a fitted lid. Cover with water. Add bouillon cubes and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce the heat. Let chicken simmer for about 30 minutes.

Remove chicken to a large bowl or plastic container and let sit until cool enough to handle. Once cool, separate the meat from the bones. Collect meat and set aside. Discard the bones and skin.

Add enough water to the pot to fill halfway and bring to a boil again. Add dumplings one at a time. Cook for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally to keep dumplings from sticking to each other. Add chicken meat and broth and stir. Reduce heat to low. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

Serves 12 to 16.

Pimento Cheese

This recipe comes from Megan Poole, who says it was handed down by her maternal grandmother, Louise Hester.

1/2 pound sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1 (2-ounce) jar sliced pimentos, drained

1/4 cup mayonnaise or more as needed

Combine cheese, pimientos and mayonnaise in a medium bowl. Mix well. Add more mayonnaise if needed until the mixture is easy to spread. Serve with celery sticks, crackers or toasted bread.

Makes about 2 cups. 


Caramel Cake 

This recipe comes from Megan Poole, who says it was handed down by her maternal grandmother, Louise Hester.

1 (18.25-ounce) box yellow cake mix, such as Duncan Hines Classic Yellow Cake Mix

1 cup water

1/3 cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter

1 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup water

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 (16-ounce) box confectioners sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease six 9-inch cake pans with shortening or oil spray and then lightly flour each pan.

Blend cake mix, water, oil and eggs in large bowl, using a standing or hand mixer at low speed until moistened, about 30 seconds. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Pour batter into cake pans and bake all at once for about 10 minutes. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes. Cool completely before frosting.

When ready to assemble and frost the cake, remove each cake layer from the pans. Choose the two most even layers for the top and bottom. Place bottom layer on a cake stand.  Take four 3-inch-wide strips of parchment or wax paper and tuck under the edges of the cake on all sides. (This will protect the cake stand from any frosting smears and produce a cleaner edge when done.)

Combine butter, brown sugar and water together in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add vanilla and confectioners sugar.  Stir until thoroughly blended.  Frost the top of bottom layer then top with next cake layer. Repeat. Once all the cake layers are assembled, frost the top and sides of cake. Do this as quickly as possible because the icing will harden fast. (If the frosting becomes too hard, reheat gently over low heat, stirring in a spoon or two of water.) When done frosting, remove strips of wax or parchment paper from around the bottom edge.

Serves 8 to 10.