Remembering iconic restaurateur who fed mid-valley palates for three (very) full decades

By Cory Frye
Lebanon Local
Last year, at around this time, I encountered the biggest pancake I’d ever beheld in my life.
My poor fork quivered, intimidated. No cattle could produce the necessary butter to sate this sucker’s thirst. It sat certain in its singularity: “I’m all and everything you need.”
Because anything beyond that tasty fluff was dangerous.
Shirley Dixon had seen such disbelief before. Many, many times, in fact. I didn’t know her well — I was a notebook-wielding stranger, really, descending upon Shirley May’s, her iconic, namesake Albany-outskirts restaurant, to document its ostensible Last Day, dragging her from her regulars, people who actually knew her, for remembrances on a story she didn’t want to end (her voice broke when I asked why it was “time,” and I realized it wasn’t her choice) — but she was comfortable enough with me by then to pat my shoulder and chuckle, “Good luck.”
Shirley May’s survived that declared denouement, just as I survived that Brobdingnagian breakfast. Unfortunately, however, the reprieve didn’t last.
The property on a six-acre plot sold later that month, June 2021, but not until dozens more meals fell into faithful patrons. Soon thereafter, its three-decade ride ended.
I was there that for-real final morning, hoping for a Frank Capra -esque miracle, where the new owner bursts through an entrance with the blueprints for an upgraded wastewater system to satisfy the county. Triumphant music swells against a lingering fade.
That would have been a story. Unfortunately, the reality was more depressing. “Permanently closed,” as Google sighs under galleries of better times.

Shirley May

After 30 years, it deserved a more grand farewell — or better: continued life. Restaurants of its stripe are rare anymore, handcrafted operations stocked with familiar characters over lovingly prepared if not entirely health-conscious fare. (Keep your cholesterol count to yourself.)
“Greasy spoons,” we called ’em, a sadly endangered species. Planted halfway between Albany and Lebanon, near the long-defunct Cottonwoods Ballroom on Highway 20 in a way-back-when that saw more traffic with expendable cash, the building became a landmark over a five-decade stretch, housing everything from Louie’s Dash-in to Rick’s Café to its final incarnation in the early 1990s, its reborn Teen Burger mascot, pilfered years earlier from a shuttered A&W, coaxing passersby into its orbit.
However, it’s immortal as Shirley May’s, largely because Shirley Dixon was a rarity herself, a double-threat visionary years before the idea of second lives consumed us (“I’m a Kohl’s cashier and an Instagram influencer”).
Once an Oregon Department of Revenue agent, she entered the restaurant biz somewhat innocuously when Rick’s Café co-owner Di Asquith asked her if she knew how to make meatloaf.
As subsequent history would indicate, she certainly did. She became the universe’s first-ever dishwasher/revenue agent, then bailed on the latter career to chase a new dream.
Within a year, she’d purchased the place and transformed it into an institution that was all her, from top to bottom, an extension of the dogged personality that pumped its heart. Supporting its walls were aphorisms applicable to her personality (“This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You get it my way, or you don’t get the damn thing.”), photos from her (and the restaurant’s) life and a décor that could best be described as Rustic Jungle. The overall space was snug, with tables cramped so comfortably together you couldn’t help but eavesdrop upon and insert yourself into strangers’ conversations, but every visit carried the familial warmth of a holiday homecoming.
We lost Shirley May Dixon on Tuesday, June 7. But what the tireless 79-year-old titan gave three generations was more filling than any pancake she delivered from her tiny, bustling kitchen or the just-one-more coffees she patiently poured into waiting cups as we met and enjoyed her company. “Thank you for your loyalty,” she called after many customers as they left.
No. Thank you, Shirley May.