WATSON, La. (The Livingston Parish News) — Wanda Willis Cloud loved playing cards with her friends, loved volunteering with her church, loved rummaging through items at garage sales, and loved cheering for the LSU Tigers.
But perhaps more than anything — besides God and her family, of course — she loved her restaurant.
And so did everyone else.
For nearly four decades, The Pizza Place has been a staple of the Watson community, a place where families enjoy a freshly-made pizza and teenagers get their first jobs. Local schools call on The Pizza Place whenever they throw a pizza party, and when natives return home from abroad, they come back to the restaurant and order the same pizza they grew up eating.
“This place is her legacy,” said her son, Brady Cloud.
Now, Wanda’s family is hoping that legacy lives on.
The Livingston Parish community is mourning the recent passing of Wanda, a longtime business owner who died Sunday from complications due to COVID-19.
She was 76 and left behind many friends, countless happy customers, and an adoring family that knew her as “Nana Wanda.”
Wanda’s obituary described her as someone who was “full of love, passion for helping others and she truly lived life to its fullest.” It also said she “took tremendous joy in all her family and was always surrounded by them.”
Brady and his wife, Sue, recently spoke with The News about Wanda’s impact in the community, which is closing in on 40 years… and counting.
“Everybody loved my mom,” Brady said. “She was kind-hearted, a good listener. If she was here, you would feel like you were with a friend. She was a beautiful soul.”
Wanda’s ties in Livingston Parish run deep. She and her “best friend and partner,” Marlin, opened the restaurant 36 years ago along Highway 16 in Watson. Back then, it was one of only a few places where people could dine out.
“And we were the only place that delivered,” Brady pointed out.
Two “hard-working, entrepreneurial” types, Wanda and Marlin sought advice from a friend who owned a pizza restaurant and even read articles on how to make dough, cheese, and sauce from scratch.
Quickly, their eatery attracted a loyal, pizza-crazed customer base.
A newspaper article at the time of the opening hailed the restaurant — back then “Marlin’s Pizza” — for serving “the biggest, taste-tingling pizzas, the biggest, juiciest po-boys, and freshest, greenest salads” in town. The “Watson Supreme” was called “the biggest, heaviest, thickest platter of pizza ever served in Livingston Parish.”
Though much has changed around the restaurant in the decades since, the Pizza Place has remained the same, down to the ingredients and recipes.
“It’s grown all around us,” Brady said. “But it was important to my mother that this place never change.”
Added Sue: “We’ve used the same recipes since the beginning.”
Over the years, many teenagers have entered the workforce through The Pizza Place. Wanda worked around their schedules if they needed off for school or extracurricular activities — “School was very important to her,” Brady said — but she also made sure they learned the ropes.
And if they got something wrong, Wanda wasn’t one to let it slide.
“Sometimes the kids didn’t know how to hold a broom, but she taught them everything,” Sue said. “A lot of people who have grown up and are professionals now attribute this place to them learning so much about work ethic. She was tough as nails, and you appreciated that.”
Brady said the restaurant has employed generations of families.
“We’ve had grandparents, parents, and now the grandkids work here,” he said. “People who worked here went on to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, just from being here as kids. And a lot of them have reached out this week.”
Up until her COVID-19 diagnosis, Wanda could still be found in the restaurant, supervising others or cleaning “every speck of dirt” that caught her eye. Even during the ice storm that swept through the state last month, Wanda wanted the restaurant open.
“She always felt like we needed to be here to feed people,” Brady said.
Things took a dark turn when Wanda tested positive for the novel coronavirus roughly a week before her passing. After seeing her doctor and getting a shot and medication, she quarantined at home and appeared to be feeling fine.
But after two days, Brady said Wanda started showing symptoms, prompting the family to bring her to the hospital. Doctors placed her on a ventilator to help her rest, but “the virus had already done its damage,” Brady said. Her oxygen levels fell behind, and eventually her organs started failing.
Wanda was in the hospital for less than five days when, on Sunday, doctors couldn’t find a pulse.
“It was quick,” Brady said. “COVID just took her.”
Since the family announced Wanda’s passing, the well-wishes have poured in. Brady and Sue said the family has received “hundreds” of messages from people who either worked at the restaurant, ate at the restaurant, or met Wanda somewhere else.
As the comments on social media show, Wanda was loved by many.
“She was such a wonderful blessing for so many and I will forever miss seeing her at times when I picked up my pizza,” one person wrote on Facebook.
“Everyone loved her and she touched the hearts of so many of the young kids that passed through those doors. Some of my fondest memories are of her and the whole gang at the Pizza Place. She was a Watson original and treated all of us as family,” wrote another.
“She will be missed dearly and always treasured as a Watson legend!” wrote a third.
The family initially thought about having a service at the restaurant but quickly realized “it wouldn’t be big enough.”
“You watch and see how many people show up to her celebration of life,” Sue said. “She had an impact on so many people.”
Wanda’s celebration of life will be at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church beginning at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 20. As per her wishes, guests are asked to wear LSU attire or colorful clothing. In lieu of flowers, people can donate to the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church homeless ministry.
Inside The Pizza Place, a table arranged near the entrance has been adorned with flowers and a framed photograph of Wanda. In front of the picture is a note that reads, “We love and miss you our beautiful angel. May you rest in peace.”
“She had a full life,” Brady said. “She’ll be greatly missed.”