May 10, 2006 - A crowd gathered at Desert West Funeral Home last week to mourn the sudden death of Stan Earl, a cook and co-owner of the popular Crying Onion Café.

The restaurant's 13 employees will carry on, despite Earl's unexpected death.

Earl had just turned 50. He died Saturday, April 29 while on the phone with his wife and café co-owner Deborah Akers-Earl.

"He was at home in his jammies," Akers-Earl recalled. "He said he was hungry and wanted me to bring him home a salad. He started to say something else. He said two words and then I heard 'Ahhh …' - he was gone in mid-sentence."

Akers-Earl jumped in her car and drove three miles to the couple's home. She ran inside, slapped her husband and pounded on his chest.

"I knew he was gone."

Paramedics arrived and got no response. Doctors pronounced Earl dead at the hospital.

Her husband had been overweight and didn't follow the best diet, Akers-Earl said.

Doctors told her that an aneurysm or sudden heart failure usually causes an instantaneous death like Earl's. "They asked me if I'd be at peace if they put heart failure as the cause of death," she said. "I said, 'Yes.'"

Akers-Earl met with the Crying Onion Café's staff.

"What do you want to do?" she asked them.

Resoundingly, the staff chose to keep going.

Earl and his wife opened the Crying Onion Café, 3684 W. Orange Grove Road, in May 2001, after years working for other restaurants. Earl previously worked at Perkins, where he developed a reputation as a master at the grill.

"I heard about Stan all the time," said Rusty Kopp, who has worked at the Crying Onion Café for six months. Kopp has assumed the lead position in the restaurant's kitchen.

"When I met him, I said, 'So, you're the Stan.'"

Earl established himself as a shy, workhouse chef, making giant pancakes and killer omelets and emerging from the kitchen rarely. If customers wanted to say hello, they walked back into the kitchen.

Last week, people filled every bench at the funeral home, as co-workers, friends, family and customers shared stories about Earl.

Christy Snow recounted the first time she ate at the Crying Onion. She sent her sandwich back three times until she got it to her liking. A server came out and told her that the cook wanted to know her name.

"Why?" Snow asked, still annoyed.

The server returned to the kitchen and asked Earl why he needed her name.

"Because we're going to have to name that sandwich after her," Earl said.

Now, customers can order "Christy's T.B.A.," sliced smoked turkey, two strips of bacon, lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole on a fresh roll.

Customers can also get melts, other specialty sandwiches, burgers, wraps and homemade deserts prepared by Akers-Earl. The cinnamon roll with butter cream frosting for $4.25 seems to be a favorite.

Breakfast always has drawn the biggest crowds.

Akers-Earl last week shared hugs and some tears with several customers, as they ate their eggs and toast and read the paper.

She and Earl inherited Vivian's Café at Orange Grove and Thornydale roads. When they bought the place, they wanted to make it look like home.

Akers-Earl, who has an art background, covered every wall with faux painting. She put crafts on top of shelves that line the walls.

The couple worked themselves silly for years and only recently had the chance to take a step back, thanks to added staff. In fact, the day before Earl died, the couple sat down for their first breakfast together since opening the restaurant.

They took the first booth inside the door.

"The house is full, I'm not in the kitchen and I'm having breakfast with my wife. I can get home and get started on my honey-do list," Akers-Earl recalled her husband saying. That night, one of the couple's dogs, Doodles, spent the entire night next to Earl in bed.

"I wonder if she knew," Akers-Earl said of Doodles, who "was daddy's girl. She absolutely adored him."

A native of Michigan, Earl had a lot of favorites, including Doodles, football and making people happy with the food he made. He even gave 10 percent off to any customer who walked in wearing Chicago Bears or Arizona Cardinals paraphernalia. He always caught hell for rooting for the Bears.

Earl demanded respect from his employees. Each morning, the men had to go back to the kitchen, say good morning and give him a firm handshake. That was the rule.

At the end of the day, Earl always thanked his staff for their work.

"He'd be hurt if you didn't say good morning to him," said Angela Siva, who has worked for five months at the café.

If you felt terrible, you could still count on that handshake from the boss, Kopp said.

"He taught me a lot at the restaurant and in life," said Kyle King, who had gotten into trouble with the law before Earl gave him a job and helped straighten him out.

Chet Weld counseled Earl and Akers-Earl through their 12-year relationship. Weld married the couple last September in his office and had been the only person to ever tell Earl to "shut up." For that, the cook held the counselor in the highest esteem.

Weld joked about the incident when he presided over Earl's memorial service last week. While people clutched Kleenexes and sniffled, Weld played the guitar and sang a religious song.

Though never the church-going kind, Earl in his last conversation with his counselor, spent several minutes talking about "God and Heaven," Weld recalled.

"He was ready."

Beaten but not broken, the Crying Onion Café staff also is prepared to continue what Earl started - one of the most popular eateries in Marana.

"We can't match him, he was a master," Kopp said. "But we can try."

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