RALEIGH, N.C. — Thanks to one man, nearly every food store in the United States contains a little piece of Raleigh in it: the Slim Jim beef jerky stick.
That man is Alonzo T. "Lon" Adams II, a Raleigh food scientist who created the formula for the famous jerky, a salty processed snack that remains a top-selling snack food.
But Adams wasn't just the father of the Slim Jim, or a "towering figure in Jimology," as The New York Times Magazine described him in 1996.
He was a World War II veteran, surviving combat in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge, where a bullet flew through his head.
At 95, he remained an avid bowler. He was a cook and photographer and was loved by his children and grandchildren.
He died Saturday, Nov. 28, in Raleigh of COVID-19 complications, according to his obituary.
"It feels wrong to say that it's shocking that someone that old passed away, but it really was shocking," said Andrew Adams, his 29-year-old grandson, in an interview Tuesday with The News & Observer.
"For someone to have been so healthy before the pandemic, and then just that rapidly be diagnosed and passing away, it was pretty shocking," he said.
Andrew Adams said his grandfather contracted the virus as a resident of an assisted living facility in Raleigh that had experienced an outbreak of cases. His grandfather tested positive for the virus and died about a week later, leaving behind family in Raleigh, Illinois and Michigan.
Although Andrew Adams doesn't like to dwell on the thought, he said he worries that it may have taken just one person not being careful with virus safety to lead up to the COVID-19 outbreak that reached his grandfather. He is one of the 5,318 virus-related deaths as of Dec. 1, according to the state health department.
But Andrew's grief is overshadowed by the great memories of his grandfather's monumental life and accomplishments.
"It's actually crazy — every gas station in the country, I walk in and see something that my grandpa formulated," Andrew Adams said.
"It's just really cool. It's kind of always been my classroom icebreaker. It's always been my grandpa and his Slim Jims."
Surviving the war
Alonzo T. Adams II was born in Davenport, Iowa. He joined the Army after graduating from high school, serving with the 82nd Airborne Division, according to his obituary.
He was only 19 when he nearly lost his life during World War II. On Jan. 30, 1945, he parachuted into combat in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge when he was shot, according to an archived article in The Daily Times of Davenport, Iowa.
He woke up unconscious around German voices, fearing he was captured by Nazi forces. But he was in a hospital with captured German soldiers and safely in American hands, recalled his grandson.
After a long recuperation, Adams attended St. Ambrose College in his native Davenport and then obtained a master's degree at Iowa State University.
"He did have some really interesting (war) stories," said Andrew Adams. "It's kind of similar to the Slim Jim issue, where maybe he didn't feel defined by it, but other people in the family would find it really interesting and ask him about it."
His move to Raleigh followed, where he helped create a very recognizable snack.
Creating Slim Jims as we know it
While Slim Jims were first created in 1928, the current formula is a meticulous mix from Adams, whose business card listed him as Director of Meat Technology.
The New York Times, in 1996, detailed with precision how Slim Jim snacks are made — a lengthy process that calls for processed ground beef, chicken meat (and other parts) along with a range of spices and chemicals that produce the salty sticks of meat. As The Daily Meal food blog called them "a wonder of science." Food processing giant Conagra Brands bought its parent company, Goodmark Foods in 1998.
Adams worked on the jerky recipe for over 20 years at Goodmark Foods in Garner from 1968 up until his retirement in 1991.
Believe it or not, Andrew Adams said, his grandfather never received free Slim Jims for life. He was humble and didn't tout his achievements or stress them as defining him.
He was a grandfather of three who enriched the lives of his family with his war stories, culinary expertise and unique humor that lasted into his later years, even with memory loss. He was an active bowler for decades and bowled this year before the pandemic.
At home, he was a witty guy who always had "the perfect response to every situation," his grandson said. He was charming and humorous as a nursing home resident, where he was loved by the facility's staff.
Andrew Adams said his grandfather's home in west Raleigh was "a whole magical place" filled with interesting things like his film photography, which he took up after retiring. Visiting him always meant a delicious meal as he kept two fridges stocked with foods.
"I definitely remember him cooking all the time and of course, there was always some meat," Andrew recalled. "Especially eggs and bacon. He was a big believer in eggs being super healthy and we trusted him. He was the food scientist, you know."
The one thing they wouldn't find around the house, however, were endless supplies of Slim Jims.