MANTACHIE – It’s been two months since Jinnie Coleman lost her soul mate to complications from COVID-19.
Some days, it’s all she can do to get out of bed, take a shower and move to the couch.
“By the grace of God, and God alone, I’m able to put one foot in front of the other,” said Coleman, 48. “If I didn’t have my faith, I don’t know what I’d do.”
For nearly 30 years, she was married to Clay Coleman, a larger-than-life character who turned a bait shop in east Tupelo into a nationally recognized barbecue restaurant.
Clay’s House of Pig, or C.H.O.P., became an overnight sensation in 2017, garnering attention in Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and Food and Wine magazines. In 2019, the Food Network recognized C.H.O.P. as having the “best ribs in the state.”
Clay Coleman died Jan. 30, 2021, at the North Mississippi Medical Center. He was 49.
The Colemans met in the fall of 1988 in Dyersburg, Tennessee. She was a high school sophomore, new to town, and he was a senior.
“His sister was also a sophomore, and it was her tendency to gather up new people and have them eat at her table,” Coleman said. “Clay saw me, and she introduced us. He asked me to borrow a dollar for lunch and said he’d let me hold his car keys. At the end of the day, we met up, and he gave me my dollar back. I gave him his car keys. I found out later that what he really wanted me to see was his cute little sports car – a Toyota Celica GTS.”
Their first date was to homecoming on his 17th birthday.
“It was my very, very, very first date,” she said. “I can literally say I married the first guy I dated.”
The couple married in August 1991, just three months after she graduated. They lived in Dyersburg for a few years before moving to Mantachie in 1995.
“We saw more opportunities here, so we moved and stayed,” she said.
Coleman’s been in the accounting industry since she left high school. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting from Ole Miss, and got her CPA license in 2011. She’s currently the business manager at Itawamba Community College in Fulton.
Coleman said when her husband expanded the bait and tackle shop to include barbecue in 2017, it was the first time she’d ever seen him let his guard down and just be himself.
“If you met him in that shop, you met the real Clay,” she said. “That’s who I was married to. He was our resident cheerleader. That was just his heart. He wanted people to be happy around him.”
The second week in January, Clay Coleman started feeling ill. He tested negative for COVID-19 three times, but by Jan. 19, he had landed in the hospital.
“We thought he was getting bronchitis,” Coleman said. “He’d had asthma all his life. But that day, he was really laboring to breathe. Now we were thinking pneumonia.”
He was eventually diagnosed with COVID-19. After fighting against going on a ventilator, he was eventually put on one.
“I got to spend 25 minutes with him on Tuesday, Jan. 26,” Coleman said. “He was unconscious, fully sedated because he was on the vent. I was just elated I got to spend that time with him, talking to him. I was trying to be his cheerleader. It was the last time I saw him alive.”
Coleman said the day before her husband was admitted to the hospital, when his breathing was especially difficult, he turned to her and said he didn’t know if he was going to make it.
“He started telling me things he wanted me to do about the shop, about the food truck,” Coleman said. “He actually helped me a lot by telling me those things that day. He gave me a starting point, and I’m going to take it from there.”
Coleman, with the help of loyal employees, has been able to keep the restaurant open.
“The crew there, they all support families,” she said. “Clay felt strongly about keeping the shop open, and I do, too. The C.H.O.P. crew was not just our work family, there were our real family. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to do my job at ICC and step into the shop more. That’s my goal.”
The Colemans have three children and two grandchildren: son Cody and his wife, Molly, live in Brandon; daughter Shelbie Wigginton and her husband, Trenton, live in Tupelo; and daughter Emma, 18, is a sophomore at Mantachie High School.
“Clay is/was my other half,” Coleman said. “We grew up together, being married as practically children, through all the ups and downs that inevitably come with being together for three decades and raising three awesome children. But one thing that never wavered was our commitment to each other. He was my soul mate. And he told me so many times that I was his.”
Coleman said she couldn’t have made it through the past two months without the support of the community.
“I can’t believe the outpouring of love that we’ve gotten,” she said. “I’ve had messages from people all over the world who said Clay touched them or connected with them. And I want to say thank you to the whole city of Tupelo. I’m still working on thank-you cards and I don’t know if I’ll ever get them all done. I just hope I can pay it forward, pick up the torch that Clay carried, and show love to people in need.”