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Jack Schaller: Legendary Tavern Owner, Remembered As A 'Perfect Gentleman'

By Ed Komenda | June 2, 2016 6:10am
 Jack Schaller died of natural causes on May 28. He was 92.
Jack Schaller died of natural causes on May 28. He was 92.
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DNAinfo/Ed Komenda

BRIDGEPORT — Ask enough people what they remember about legendary bar owner Jack Schaller, and certain words pop up again and again:

“Legend” and “gentleman.” “Family man” and “friend.”

On Wednesday, hundreds of the treasured tavern keeper's closest buddies, Schaller’s Pump patrons and family members trickled into Nativity of Our Lord Church to pay respect to the South Side celebrity, who died of natural causes on Saturday. He was 92.

Surrounding his casket in front of the altar, a series of decorative flowers reflected Schaller’s hobbies and tastes: A Jack-of-Hearts playing card, a pair of dice that landed on seven — and a can of Pepsi.

Lining the walls were bouquets and cards offering condolences. One read, “We’ll miss you!”

Several tables showcased some of Schaller’s greatest accomplishments and experiences over the last 50 years:

There was the plaque from when his alma mater, Leo High School, inducted him into the school’s hall of fame.

And the Chicago Sun-Times front page he shared with Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In black marker, someone wrote the word “Pops” beneath Schaller’s smiling face.

Then there was the letter written on Jan. 12, 2004, and signed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who considers Schaller's Pump his favorite bar. Printed on official City of Chicago letterhead, the proclamation named January 15 “JACK SCHALLER DAY IN CHICAGO.”

“… Jack Schaller has always shown himself to be an exemplary and caring family man, son husband, father and grandfather,” Daley wrote. “[I] urge all Chicagoans to recognize Jack Schaller for his contributions to Chicago and the Bridgeport community.”

As visitors came and went Wednesday, John McNamara sat on the front steps of the church, watching the faces file in and out.

The 85-year-old retired White Sox clubhouse boss considered Schaller a close friend. He got his start as a working man at Schaller’s Pump, where he shined the shoes of patrons, many of them city employees.

“It was a melting pot," McNamara said.

At Schaller's visitation, McNamara remembered his buddy Jack as a wiry young man and die-hard White Sox fan who spent a lot of time at the clubhouse. Schaller considered  the team's World Series crown in 2005 —  when reporters from all over the world visited the bar to watch the South Side sluggers make history — the highlight of his life.

“You wouldn't know he was the same guy,” said McNamara, who now walks with a cane. "He didn't pick up the walker 'til the end. … He had a good pace.”

Ald. Patrick D. Thompson (11th) remembered Schaller as a man everyone came to see.

“People loved to sit and talk to him,” he said.

Jack wasn’t hard to find. Until his death, he lived in an apartment above the bar. Over the last five decades, countless neighborhood folks have walked through the tavern’s signature wooden door looking for the man who kept it running for so many years.

“They’d ask, ‘Is Jack around?’” Thompson said, “And then he’d come down the stairs.”

Jack’s grandfather opened Schaller's Pump in 1881. A veteran who served during World War II, Schaller took over his family's bar and restaurant in 1966.

After almost 140 years in the neighborhood, the tavern bills itself as the city's oldest licensed liquor establishment, a place once considered a nerve center of Chicago politics.

“Inside is the lingering memory of deals hatched, promises made and careers broken,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “This is a neighborhood tavern that had the benefit of a clientele that, for better or worse, had the power to make a city.”

Jack Schaller didn't care much for national politics.

"Local politics is all that counts," Schaller told USA Today in 1992.

Beyond its place in the political realm, Schaller’s Pump is a place where neighborhood folks expect to run into a friend — or at least a familiar face from the Schaller clan.

“The waitresses were his daughters. His sons were the bartenders. He has granddaughters and grandsons who now work there,” Ald. Thompson said. “It’s a great tribute to him as a family man. I think that was such a unique and tremendous accomplishment to have a true family business.”

Regulars at Schaller’s Pump remember Jack’s good manners and open heart.

"He was a perfect gentleman, one of the last good old-time saloon keepers,” said Roy Rossi, who knew Schaller for more than 40 years. "The guy never said ‘no’ when you needed something.”

Veronica Higgins, 80, always admired Schaller’s demeanor when a woman walked into the room.

"He's always tip his hat to a woman," she said.

Among men, Schaller always offered a warm greeting and hand to shake.

“He was a dear man,” said Denis Curran, 76.

Dave Samber, owner of the nearby Polo Café, often visited Schaller’s Pump for a glass of whiskey to unwind after a long day.

“When I wanted to get out of here, I went to Schaller’s,” Samber said. “I knew I could get a good Jameson on the rocks with a lemon. It’d be there waiting for me when I got there.”

Around Christmas one year, Samber showed up at Schaller’s and found Jack sitting at the bar. Over the course of their conversation — small talk to catch up — several patrons walked up to Jack and asked, “How are you?”

“Hiya, hiya!” Schaller said. “How are you, how are you?”

After one conversation, Schaller turned to Samber and said, “I don’t know who the hell that was.”

But Schaller never turned down a chance to chat. He had a technique he used whenever he ran into someone he couldn’t remember.

He’d ask, “How’s your ma?” A neutral question that kept conversation flowing.

After witnessing another conversation, Samber leaned over to Schaller and jokingly asked, “How’s your ma?”

“No,” Schaller said. “I really knew those people!”

To many Bridgeport business owners, Schaller set an example as a neighborhood guy who made good by treating people well.

“The guy was a fixture,” Samber said. “I was glad to know him. Being in the business I can really appreciate what it took keep that place going for so long.”

A funeral Mass remembering John "Jack" Schaller will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday at Nativity of Our Lord Church, 653 W. 37th St.

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