Brownsville’s Southwinds Lounge celebrates 40 years

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Southwinds Lounge in Brownsville has been a go-to spot for prominent people and regular folk for 40 years, with Kathy “Ms Kitty” Jennings always at the helm.

Jennings, who opened for business in Southwinds Shopping Center on Sept. 10, 1983, was feted recently along with the cherished institution she founded with a 40th anniversary luau, complete with leis and commemorative hula-girl koozies for all comers.

Even at 86 years old, she insists she has no intention of retiring anytime soon. Jennings still comes to work every day because she enjoys it, it’s her livelihood and her customers are like family, she said.

“I’m not quitting,” Jennings said. “I feel good and strong. I pick up heavy boxes to bring here and unload at the backdoor at my age.”

Born on Florida’s northeast coast near the Georgia state line, she came to Brownsville at the age of 12 with her father, who owned three shrimp boats and was part of a wave of shrimpers who relocated to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1940s and 1950s.

A brief career as a 20-something running the switchboard and distributing mail at the Brownsville Herald was cut short by jaundice, though when she recovered she landed a job as desk clerk at the Holiday Inn, now Plaza Square Hotel, at 2255 Central Blvd.

It was there Jennings met her future husband, John Clark, who managed the hotel’s restaurant and the exclusive Outrigger Club, a private supper club.

“Back then it was for society, and you had to be a member,” she said. “You had to pay fees and you had to have your own bottles … and they’d have them and bring them out when you needed them.”

Now married and with a child, the couple relocated to Victoria and Port Aransas for a time before returning to Brownsville and leasing the restaurant at Motel 6 on Central Boulevard, where the Brownsville Public Library now stands, and later the Ramada Inn restaurant, now Mi Torito.

Then came Southwinds.

Kathy “Ms Kitty” Jennings at the Southwinds Lounge on Sept. 19, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Lindsay Clark, Jennings’ son, remembers the eventful opening day, which had been announced in advance, guaranteeing an eager bar full of well-wishers from Jennings’ Holiday Inn/Ramada Inn days. The only problem was, the business didn’t have its alcoholic beverage license yet.

“Ms Kitty and I had to get up about 3 in the morning,” Clark said. “We took off for Austin, because we didn’t have the license. They offered to send it Monday. We picked it up and came back. Customers were waiting.”

The license went up on the wall, servers started serving and didn’t sit down till closing time, he remembered. Southwinds over the years has catered to a broad cross section of humanity: lawyers, judges, politicians, businessmen and everyday people. Jennings was dubbed “Ms Kitty” by Luis Villarreal, owner of the Matamoros Cafe, around the time Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty on TV’s “Gunsmoke”) was guest of honor at a Gladys Porter Zoo fundraiser in the mid-1970s.

A number of Jennings’ longtime regular customers, their names written on sand dollars embedded in the bar, have passed on, though Southwinds still has its regulars and is attracting a younger clientele as well, she said.

“I’m getting a lot of new young people at night, because we have karaoke Friday and Saturday nights,” Jennings said. “And then we have the dance floor, and people dance. And several times a week we have free botana, and we have popcorn for them every day. It’s mainly word of mouth, a lot of it. People will come here and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we love it here.’”

Trouble is all practically unknown at Southwinds since Jennings won’t tolerate fights or other nonsense, with friends and loyal clientele always ready to enforce the rules if necessary — or help out behind the bar when things get too busy. Sandra Parra is one such friend.

“If they’re shorthanded I’ll come help them fill in,” she said. “This is my getaway to come help Ms Kitty, who is like a mom to me.”

They are hiring, by the way.

Guiding the Southwinds ship through every type of weather for 40 years isn’t Jennings’ only claim to fame. She has served as a member of the Zonta Club of Brownsville for 55 years and is “still at it,” Jennings said. Her talent as a fundraising powerhouse for the organization is legendary. Also, she and a handful of other Zonta members established the first battered women’s shelter in Brownsville, in an old house on West Broadway Street.

The house was in terrible condition, but Jennings got lumber yards to donate materials and construction crews to donate their time to refurbish it top to bottom, Clark said.

Kathy “Ms Kitty” Jennings at the Southwinds Lounge on Sept. 19, 2023. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

“She motivates people,” he added.

Jennings pointed out that Zonta’s “Denim & Diamonds” fundraiser is scheduled for Oct. 21 at La Gloria Ranch.

Now, with Southwinds’ 40th anniversary behind her, she’s looking toward the future, with no plans to marry again.

“I’ve had three husbands and they’re all dead, and I didn’t kill any of them,” Jennings quipped.

She intends to live to be 100, mainly so she can see what her grandchildren do with themselves, she said. When her time does come, eventually, Jennings wants her casket to be propped up in the front window at Southwinds, black candelabras on either side, so people can pass by and pay their respects, she said.

“I’ve got three options,” Jennings said. “I want to fall off my bar stool, or fall out of a chair, or die in my sleep, and I probably won’t get any of those.”