John Lamb, Published November 15 2011
Lamb: 85-year-old Dempsey's bartender tapping into youth
The downtown bar has its regulars, college students, construction workers and businessmen and women stopping in for a quick one after work. Others never seem to want to go home.
Some play black jack or trivia, some watch sports and others come for the live bands or to play tunes on the jukebox that range from the Irish folk act the Clancy Brothers to the punk act The Clash.
Daytime bartender Bob Russell knows all the customers, and to him, they’re all “kids.”
“Everyone I socialize with is half my age,” says Russell, who turns 85 today.
Since the Broadway pub opened in March 2006, Russell has been pouring drinks behind the bar, and he has no plans of slowing down.
“Retirement is boring,” Russell says shaking his head. “It’s a death sentence. I like to be out with people.”
At 7 tonight, Dempsey’s will throw a birthday party for Russell with fried chicken and cake.
Then tomorrow morning it’s back to work, just as it’s been most of his life.
The Buffalo, N.D., native has been on the move since the day after graduating high school in 1944 when he joined the Navy. Russell served four years, got out long enough to see the job market wasn’t looking good and then re-enlisted, just in time for the Korean War.
His Navy career transitioned into one with the U.S. Merchant Marine before he settled in Chicago working at Mike and Bob’s Bar on the city’s southeast side in the ’50s and ’60s.
Various jobs brought him closer to his birthplace until he got a job in the shipping department of Mathison’s in Fargo, where he worked from 1978 to 2006. When Dempsey’s co-owner Bert Meyers opened his restaurant Bertrosa’s on 45th Street in 2001, Russell, who worked with Meyers’ wife, Lisa, at Mathison’s, became a regular.
“He’d come out every Saturday and for three hours we’d just talk about Chicago,” Bert Meyers says of his old hometown.
So when Meyers was ready to open a Windy City-style pub downtown, he tapped Russell, then 79, to tend bar.
“He’s the first guy you see when you come in the door,” Meyers says.
Before opening the doors at 4 p.m. Russell stocks the bar, checks inventory and places product orders.
Russell doesn’t use his age to pull rank on the younger staffers, insisting, “I’m just one of the crowd.”
Instead, he leads by example.
“He works his ass off,” Meyers says. “His way of doing things is the right way.”
He says Russell recently took a week off and those who filled in for his shifts quickly found a renewed appreciation for all he does.
Russell deflects the praise, saying he likes his job, his bosses and,0 most importantly, his customers.
At his age, he doesn’t think twice about kicking someone out – though, he says it doesn’t need to happen often.
“We don’t have many bad ones here,” Russell says.
As for that other unpleasant aspect of a bartender’s job, listening to patrons spill their problems, Russell’s technique is to listen for a bit then move on.
“Just smile and use a little B.S. Be polite and go wait on the next guy,” he says. “You don’t ever snub someone.”
It’s advice that comes from years of service, but from someone who doesn’t show his age.
“He likes to live young,” Meyers says. “He’s got more get-up-and-go than most people.”
“Most of the people I know around my age are dead or in nursing homes. It’s because they retired,” Russell says. “I’m never going to retire. I have to have a place to go in the morning. I just look forward to seeing my regulars every day.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533