Longtime Lebanon businessman and one of the original 10 Cracker Barrel investors, Jack Cato turned 90 on July 19 and the brand-new nonagenarian received a drive-through birthday parade at The Pavilion where he is rehabbing from a recent surgery.
“It’s wonderful. I didn’t know I had that many friends,” Cato said.
Some of his friends waved American flags from their cars which were adorned with poster board messages in red, white and blue.
Cato, a native of Smith County, is a veteran of the Korean War.
Cato showed his entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. The 13-year-old Cato sold candy bars to soldiers who were in the Tennessee Maneuvers training in Lebanon during World War II.
“They weren’t allowed to go to stores. I’d buy 24 at a time for a nickel apiece and sell them two for 15 cents,” Cato said. “But most of the time they’d just give me a quarter. I remember making $15 one day. And you didn’t get paid but $2 for working on the farm.”
The business-minded Cato graduated high school in the early 1950s and began a small trucking business. He had a girlfriend and in his own words, life was “sweet.” That all changed in May of 1951.
“I came in one day and momma met me on the porch,” he said. “She had a letter in her hand and said, ‘Son, you've been drafted.’ ”
Cato spent 13 months in Korea and, thanks to the GI Bill, he studied electronics and TV repair when he returned home. Soon thereafter Cato opened a store where he serviced and sold electronics for more than four decades.
In the late 1960s Cato was approached with an opportunity that would change the course of his financial future.
Eddie Evins, brother of Cracker Barrel founder Danny Evins, approached Cato about investing $10,000 in the yet-formed corporation.
“He said that they didn’t have the 10 they needed and asked me if I wanted in,” Cato said. By the way, that $10,000 investment roughly translates into $70,000 today.
“I asked my wife Ruth what she wanted to do and she said, ‘I’m not telling you one way or the other. When I told Eddie I was in, he used my phone to call and get the last investor in — number 10 — to form the corporation. They didn’t even have an office with a phone.”
Out of those 10 original investors, Cato and Tommy Lowe are the only two living original board members.
“I guess we were just lucky,” Cato said of his original investment. “It wasn’t just good for us. Cracker Barrel has been great for the city.”
Ruth Cato, the wife who wouldn’t give Jack investment advice back in the 1960s, passed away July 13. The couple was married 65 years.
“They sure know how to make a man feel special,” Cato said of all of the participants in his birthday parade.