A Side of History
Oasis Diner Owner Talks Relocation, Military & Teaching Career & More
Photographer: Amy Payne
Cats may enjoy nine lives, but felines have nothing on Don Rector, who, in his 72 years, has tackled multiple careers and a wide range of experiences. As a young man, Rector, co-owner of the Oasis Diner in Plainfield, served as an Army Ranger with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. In 1968, a hand grenade ripped apart his legs, leaving his life hanging in the balance.
“It was touch and go for a while,” says Rector, who, for days, came in and out of consciousness. Even in the face of such devastation, he maintained a positive perspective.
“I felt fortunate,” says Rector, a grateful Purple Heart recipient. “My whole company was nearly wiped out. And my roommate lost his eyesight to a hand grenade that exploded in his face.”
After 19 months in the hospital, Rector walked out on his own two feet and stayed on active duty for an additional seven years.
“All I ever wanted to be was a soldier,” Rector says.
At 31, however, he went home to Indianapolis to care for his sick wife and three little boys (he later adopted a daughter). Soon thereafter, Rector joined Allison Transmission, where he worked for eight years. Following that, he worked for his dad’s machine-building business in New Castle. He enjoyed a stable career in the automotive and aircraft industry for nearly 20 years before moving to Hendricks County in 1996 where he met Connie. They married in 1997.
That same year he switched gears again and became a high school teacher, first at Ben Davis, then Center Grove. Though he was certified in social studies, he taught everything from English to Math. While teaching at Center Grove, he also worked as a reserve deputy sheriff in Johnson County.
Rector’s three sons joined the National Guard and went to Iraq. In 2004, Rector joined two of his sons in Afghanistan.
“People asked me all the time what I was doing in Afghanistan at 58 years old, but this was an old man’s dream come true,” says Rector, who in the first year ran the training program for the Afghan National Police. During that time, nobody ever fired a weapon. During years 2-5, however, fighting was rampant, and he was on security duty for road construction with the Agency for International Development.
“We had 500 Afghan soldiers who each morning cleared the mines and booby traps,” Rector says.
He was recruited by the U.S Army’s special operations team to go back to Afghanistan for 16 months. His initial assignment was in the city of Jalalabad. He spent a year there, then two years in Gardez, a major city near the Pakistan border. His final assignment took him to Kandahar where he remained for four years.
While all of this was occurring, back in Plainfield, The Oasis Diner was experiencing issues of its own. The diner, originally manufactured by Mountain View Diners in Signac, New Jersey, was shipped via railroad to the east side of Plainfield in 1954.
“The front portion was built like a house trailer with a steel frame under it,” says Rector, noting that in the early 50s, hundreds of these units were shipped via rail cars all over the United States but primarily along Highway 40 and Route 66, the major cross-country highways.
“The predecessor to McDonald’s, in the 50s and 60s, these diners were the main eating stop for traveling families,” Rector says.
In 2010, Indiana Landmarks listed the Oasis Diner as one of Indiana’s 10 Most Endangered Buildings, which prompted the Town of Plainfield to conduct a feasibility study on the possible relocation of the diner to the heart of the revitalized Town Center.
Rector’s step-daughter and her husband, Doug Huff, had settled in Plainfield to raise their children. Rector’s son-in-law had been in the construction business for 18 years so when the Oasis Diner was for sale, he asked Rector if he’d like to become partners and renovate it. Though the men had no experience in running a restaurant, they were eager to give it a shot. Plus, Rector had nagging injuries from the military, causing him to have to rebuild his right shoulder, left ankle and both knees. So, he thought it wise to choose a job that was kind to his body.
The two relocated the Oasis four miles west to 405 W. Main Street and reopened this historical landmark in November 2014, having restored the diner’s interior and exterior to its original appearance. It’s one of only a handful of historical diners to remain on US 40 from Cumberland, Maryland, to Vandalia, Illinois.
When they restored the building, Huff and Rector tried to recreate everything the way it was in 1954, including the food, décor, even the booths and tables.
“That’s a big part of our draw. People like that we saved this old piece of history,” Rector says. “Customers tell me all the time, ‘My dad used to take me here when I was little.’”
Another fun fact: when Rector was working on financing for the diner, he went into Merchant’s Bank where he learned that the branch manager was employed five decades earlier as the diner’s night cook.
It’s not just the history that draws people to the Oasis but the quality food and friendly atmosphere.
“People won’t come back unless the food is tasty and the staff is kind,” Rector adds. He mentions Raymond Piercy, who operated the diner until his health declined in 2008.
“Everybody loved this man,” says Rector, noting that the secret to any successful business is hiring the right individuals. In the foodservice industry, people tend to come and go, but a handful of people have remained at the Oasis since it opened, including managers, Danyell and Jennifer, and Tim, a senior cook.
Not surprisingly, the diner hosts a number of “regulars,” including a retired school teacher who eats at least one meal a day there and two ladies who sit in the corner booth 2-3 times a week. Rector chats with the customers when he’s not acting as a reserve deputy for Hendricks County.
“After the knee surgery, I couldn’t chase bad guys,” Rector laments. “And with the rebuilt shoulder, I’m no good in a street fight, but I figured I could supply manpower.”
He mainly does home visits for those listed in the sex offender registry, checking up every 90 days on these folks, many of whom are trying to make amends with society by doing volunteer work. Rector also is involved with outreach. For instance, every Monday from May through October he takes foster kids to Little Oaks Ranch west of Hendricks County where they can ride, feed and groom the horses. In addition, he’s done mission work in South Africa building homes for orphans affected by the AIDS epidemic.
If you wonder where Rector gets all of his energy, he admits to drinking 10-15 cups of coffee a day — a “perk” of co-owning a diner. Another great thing is the partnership between Rector and Huff. They complement the other nicely as Huff is a great “numbers guy” and Rector is a phenomenal “people person.” As the diner’s operations manager, Rector employs the same techniques he did as an army leader, a foreman and a teacher.
“I love leading people,” Rector says. “I’m fortunate to have recruited some of the best.”
The Oasis Diner is open 7 a.m.- 9 a.m. weekdays, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, call 317-837-7777 or visit oasisdiner.com.