He calls it his office. They call him family. He is Lance McCullah. They are Happy Jack’s.
Almost every morning between 8 and 8:30 a.m., McCullah wheels his wheelchair into Happy Jack’s, the hamburger and pie place on 20th Street that also serves breakfast. If he is coming from his house on 20th Street, five blocks away, McCullah enters through the door facing west.
If McCullah, a stocky man with a luminous smile, brown hair and a brown beard, is returning from BHS where he is an assistant football coach specializing in the linebackers and running backs, he comes through the door facing south.
When Frances and Ruben Rosales, the restaurant’s owners, see him they move the bench and the white plastic chairs so McCullah can maneuver his chair to one end of the counter or the other. Regulars like Rocky and Mike help too.
Usually, McCullah orders the chili verde omelet that includes diced, grilled jalapenos, topped with cheesy potatoes and a large cup of coffee with sugar, a cup that comes with a long, red straw that makes it easier for McCullah to sip.
Then Frances, Ruben or one of the regulars cuts up his food and feeds him.
“We don’t want him to eat cold food,” Frances said.
In 2009, McCullah noticed that his left leg had become undependable. Then, his right leg. Three years later, doctors’ diagnosed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“When he first came down, he was using a cane, then sticks and now a wheelchair,” Frances said.
McCullah took the high road, or as much as one can, when he got the diagnosis.
"Would I like not to have ALS? Of course," he said at the time. "If God doesn't cure me, I want to be upbeat and positive and maybe he will use me to touch others."
Construction, his vocation, became difficult, although it didn’t preclude him taking another mission trip to Guadalajara, where his team worked on tiling the second floor of a clinic and pouring 30 yards of cement for a basketball court. McCullah had to drag himself up and down the stairs on his belly.
Now, having excused himself from most of the construction business, he devotes his time to his wife, Leeta, his grown children Elizabeth, Kevin and Emily, two grandchildren and mentoring and coaching football players at BHS.
“Before one of their first road trips this year, he came in and bought 48 burritos so the players could have something to eat on the bus,” Frances said.
One of the lessons McCullah has tried to teach the players is how to behave in public, specifically in restaurants.
"This is an opportunity to show players that there is more to life than how many touchdowns they score or tackles they make," McCullah said.
Fourteen years ago, Frances and Ruben were served with a federal lawsuit by an attorney from Irvine stating that their establishment violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawyer charged that "his client had been deterred from joining friends and family for breakfast at Happy Jack’s and as a result he suffered embarrassment, frustration and upset."
It didn’t matter that Happy Jack's wasn’t serving breakfast at the time because the Rosaleses, who have owned Happy Jacks for 42 years, made the changes, built an asphalt slope, put in a wide door and paid the attorney’s fees.
In addition to his weekday visits, McCullah wheels down for the Sunday fundraisers Happy Jack’s organizes for the Ronald McDonald House twice a month. It’s family day at the “office.”
“He brings a couple of his grandchildren on his chair,” Frances said. “They love their Papa.”
The Rosaleses make a point of treating him the same as other customers, which means McCullah is included in the restaurant banter.
“He dishes it out and is a good sport about taking it,” Frances said. “We tell him that although he can’t move his arms and legs, he can still move his mouth.”
The Happy Jack’s crew has noticed a change in the last few months. McCullah’s voice has become deeper, his hands unable to do much other than push the button that activates his chair.
What hasn’t changed is McCullah’s smile and the encouragement he offers the world. It’s easier when he is sitting in his “office” amid the relaxed clatter and warmth of the restaurant. Sitting with his work family, surrounded by friends.