Debra Ivory, Smiling Owner of a Barbecue Haven, Dies at 62

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

When you opened the door to George’s Happy Hog Bar-B-Q in Oklahoma City, the aroma of pecan-smoked meat would waft out, followed by a welcome from the owner, Debra Ivory: “Hey Baby!” “Hey Sweetie!” “Hey Darling!”

Ms. Ivory and her son, Stephen Ivory, a former amateur boxer with a brief professional career, bought the restaurant in 2012. Under the Ivorys it grew in popularity, attracting legislators from the nearby State Capitol as well as travelers passing through on Interstate 40; George’s served about 160 customers a day. Ms. Ivory knew by heart what most regulars wanted.

“My mom was the smiling face, the one that everybody loved — always used to make sure everyone was taken care of,” said Mr. Ivory, who usually handled the grill while his mother worked the front.

Ms. Ivory died on Dec. 13 at 62 at her home in the city. Her son said the cause was complications of the coronavirus.

Debra Kay Buckner was born in Oklahoma City on June 23, 1958, the youngest of seven children of Bernice and Roscoe Buckner. Her mother was a homemaker, her father an Army veteran who detailed cars for a living.

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She attended Northwest Classen High School. One friend and former schoolmate, Fritziene Lothlen, said she would be invited to the Ivory home for dinners of “down-home greatness.” With all the good food around, she said, Ms. Ivory could not fail to become a good cook. Ms. Lothlen became a twice-a-week regular at George’s Happy Hog.

After graduating from high school in 1976, Ms. Ivory took courses at nearby Rose State College. She was married and divorced twice. Her first husband was Wendell Huggins, and the second was Anthony Ivory. Between the two marriages, she was in a relationship with James Dudley, and they had a son, Stephen, who was adopted by her second husband. After her second divorce, Ms. Ivory rekindled a relationship with Mr. Dudley that lasted until her death.

Ms. Ivory was a bank teller through the 1990s, coming home on a couple of occasions with stories of being robbed at gunpoint. During one heist, her son said, Ms. Ivory refused to give up any money and instead locked the bank’s door so that the robber couldn’t leave before the police arrived. She later showed a similar stubbornness at her restaurant, refusing to let customers leave without receiving a kind word from her.

Ms. Ivory, who had long dreamed of owning a restaurant, was working as an X-ray technician at the Oklahoma University College of Dentistry when she heard that George’s Happy Hog Bar-B-Q, named after its founder, George Thompson, was up for sale. She took out a loan and cashed out some of her 401(k) savings to make the purchase.

The Ivorys revamped the menu with recipes honed over decades of Sunday family barbecues, and they added Ms. Ivory’s cobblers and sweet potato pie to the front counter alongside other desserts from local home bakers. A sister, Alice J. Hillmon, and a rotating cast of nieces and nephews also worked there.

In a review in February 2020, the weekly newspaper Oklahoma Gazette described the ribs as “perfectly cooked,” the potato salad as “unlike any” (with a hint of pickle juice acidity) and the pork-flecked greens as “a revelation.”

Along with Mrs. Hillmon and Mr. Ivory, Ms. Ivory is survived by two sisters, Joann Buckner and Tanya Wisby, and a brother, Roscoe Buckner Jr.

Mr. Ivory said he intended to continue the restaurant as his mother had left it.

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