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Jack Schaller, Legendary Tavern Owner, Hits 90 with an Honor and a Smile

By Casey Cora | January 22, 2014 6:48am
 Jack Schaller, owner of Schaller's Pump, was honored by the Cook County board for his 90th birthday.
Jack Schaller, owner of Schaller's Pump, was honored by the Cook County board for his 90th birthday.
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DNAinfo/Casey Cora

BRIDGEPORT — Clad in a White Sox cardigan, Jack Schaller slowly made his way from his upstairs apartment to his downstairs tavern.

It's a routine Schaller has made countless times since taking over Schaller's Pump, the family tavern, in 1966.

Schaller celebrated his 90th birthday on Jan. 15 and was honored by his pal, Cook County Commissioner John Daley, who authored a resolution introduced to the county board "wishing him still more years of good health and richly deserved happiness."

Last week, friends, relatives and neighborhood bigshots packed Schaller's Pump, which bills itself as the oldest licensed liquor establishment in Chicago. Schaller's grandfather opened it in 1881 and it's been in the family ever since.

Located across the street from the 11th Ward offices at 37th and Halsted streets, Schaller's has long been called a second office for the city's Democratic power base, including the five mayors who called Bridgeport home.

It's where Richard J. Daley drank his beer and Ald. James Balcer (11th) still ducks in for lunch. John Daley, who lives nearby, is known to drop by now and again.

Just this month, longtime Bridgeport resident James Flannery threw a party there celebrating his appointment as presiding judge of Cook County Circuit Court's law division, which also happens to be where George Schaller, Jack's late brother and a partner in Richard J. Daley's law practice, served on the bench.

But ask Jack Schaller about the high-profile customers and he just shrugs it off.

"They treat me with respect and I treat them with respect," he said.

With a few notable exceptions, including the peephole in the now-unused door that once served as a lookout for the bar's short tenure as a speakeasy, the place is largely the same.

On a recent winter evening, a middle-age couple sat down for an early rib dinner, while some old-timers at the bar nursed cans of Miller Lite. Schaller's daughter Jill was tending the bar, while another daughter, Kim, was ready to serve up plates of corned beef hash and hamburgers.

The restaurant still offers free parking for patrons attending games at U.S. Cellular Field.

And Schaller remains a die-hard fan, calling the team's World Series crown in 2005 —  when reporters from across the globe descended on the bar to watch history unfold through the eyes of the neighborhood — the highlight of his life.

Still, his stint advertising Schaller's Pump at the ballpark was short-lived.

"After a ballgame, lotta trouble. No more. No more. Thank God," he said.

While the no-frills interior of the bar remains somewhat of a time warp, the surrounding neighborhood is changing "for the better," Schaller said.

A block or two away, new half-million dollar homes are sprouting up as new families discover the old neighborhood. The nearby Union Stockyards have evolved from a bastion for blue-collars workers (and drinkers) into a corporate park.

And even within the bar, times are changing.

Gone is the Lithuanian accordion player, who would play old Chicago Catholic League fight songs on Friday nights. Also gone is the brewery next door, which pumped real brew and booze to the bar during Prohibition, and Schaller's bookmaking business, which he said was OK'd by the late Richard J. Daley.

"He never frowned on it. But he said if you make too much money, spread it around. Don't give it to the syndicate," Schaller said.

Schaller said he's been sober for 25 years and hasn't smoked in 15. His aging eyes light up when talks about his eight kids, 18 grandchildren and six great grandkids.

He's got a habit of knocking on the table and leaning in close before saying something important, and he can rattle off a few great stories when he really gets going. 

But when he was asked to disperse a little wisdom heading into his 90th year, Schaller was a man of few words.

"Knock on wood, I guess."