CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Hamlin's Fountain and Gifts opened as a pharmacy and soda fountain 60 years ago.
"When we opened the doors in 1960, Jesse started working here," owner Karen Nicholson said.
Jesse Lerma was 18 at the time, ready to begin a new job but not realizing how much it would impact his life and others.
Lerma never left Hamlin's.
Instead he was the main employee who represented what Hamlin's was all about.
"Whenever you would come in, he would be here cooking, always with a smile on his face, just kind of going at his pace," said Nicholson. "And cooking for, three and four generations."
Over the years, people who grew up going to Hamlin's also took their children and their grandchildren.
"If he was not in here, my day was not made. And I will miss him and he was such a joy to this community," said Kathy Wemer, who knew Jesse since she was 14. "Couldn't wait for this place to open, banana splits were 39 cents."
Hamlin's has been in business longer than other soda fountains in the area, shifting from a pharmacy to a gift shop over the years.
But Lerma always remained as the main cook and never left. Nicholson said she grew up learning from Lerma. The highlight of her days were on the line during the lunch rush with him.
"It looks real easy, if you’re sitting over here watching what he would be doing," she said. "But it isn’t. He had it all organized in his head and he could jumble 20 different things at the same time,."
When asked what Jesse Lerma meant to Hamlin's, Nicholson said, "I think Jesse, probably was Hamlin."
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Nicholson said she told Lerma to stay home since it was best for him to be as safe as possible. Lerma ended up contracting the novel coronavirus, and died on Tuesday.
"Besides his personality, there’s just not many people like him in the world right now," she said.
"He was so loved in the community, and such a good sweet, good-hearted man, and he will be missed," said Lynn Gonzalez, a long-time customer at Hamlin's Fountain and Gifts.
Lerma was known for his famous chili and grilling up some of the best burgers in town.
Hamlin's Fountain and Gifts currently has a table in the middle of the store with notes that anyone can write to Jesse's family.
Hamlin is currently on a limited menu with limited seating inside, decreasing hours of operation because of the pandemic.
"This virus is so awful, and so many good people - it’s affected so many good people," said Gonzalez.