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What I Learned from Famous Ernie Oelbermann

by on August 18, 2015 9:40 AM

"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
-Clarence, It's a Wonderful Life

At 3:34 PM on Wednesday, August 12th I received an email from my sister-in-law and read Ernie Oelbermann died that morning. A disheartening message in the late afternoon of a hectic day.  And already the world seemed a little less bright. Yet, as sad as it was, if there was ever a human who got his 90-years-worth out of life, it was Ernie. I had to smile. 

So this is just one man’s story among the many that were touched by him. 

However, the first thing you should know about Ernie is his wife Becky.  I am convinced that if there were no Becky there would be no Ernie. And you know what that means for the proverbial men on the transport. It’s as simple and as complex as that.  Every bit of love for Ernie is an identical bit of love for Becky.

But the story…

It was November of 1980 in what should have been my senior year, if not for an early two-year dalliance with the Architecture program, when a fellow student government compatriot named Wayne Prokay suggested I apply for a job bartending at the Phyrst.  As he was a co-manager it seemed I might have a chance at getting the job even though my previous experience at bartending was nonexistent (Ernie lesson #1 – previous experience is often over-rated).

A day or two later around 3:00 PM – opening time – I was in the Phyrst meeting Ernie.  And being hired (Ernie lesson #2 – go with your gut).  Those early months flowed together as I became acquainted with the nuances of bartending. 35 years on I can still rattle off the beer selection – Bud, Busch, Mich, Natural Light, Rolling Rock, Yuengling Porter, and Stroh’s.  Plus those pithy closing lines that later became part of pop culture, “You bought a beer, not a room” and “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” (Ernie lesson #3 – have fun).

The following spring, Wayne, having been a responsible student, graduated after the standard four years.  I was made a co-manager. 

As a bartender my interactions with Ernie were limited to Friday Happy Hours, Saturday nights, and the occasional weekday night when he might stop in to see how a particular band was doing.  As a co-manager it meant interacting with Ernie at least three days a week when you opened the bar, plus the other times.  I did this for the next year.

It was during this time I got to watch Ernie handle the world that is a college bar up close. Under normal circumstances running a bar showcasing bands is a tough enough job. Liquor boards, local government, police, fire marshals, an intoxicated clientele, and testy artists are just some of the many daily potential migraines.  Add in the college variables of guaranteed staff and customer turnover, and the anxiety level of supporting a wife and kids on the earnings can become unbearable. 

Owning a college bar is the dream of many.  Many don’t survive. It was Ernie’s dream and he didn’t just survive, he thrived. Not to mention, for many of those years he owned two bars – the Phyrst and the Brewery (Ernie lesson #4 – embrace uncertainty).

Being a co-manager did come with a few minor responsibilities. Among them were locking up, making the morning deposits, opening, and calling in the beer orders.  By your second phone order, Gary at Hickey’s knew your voice and you could dispense with the, “This is John from the Phyrst calling in our order” line (Ernie lesson #5 – give people the opportunity to show you what they can do).

In addition to the everyday responsibilities, occasionally Ernie passed on a fun event.  He had Mary Anderson and I attend the grand opening of the Nittany Beverage expansion in his stead.  Free samples of everything in stock!  Sometimes youth IS wasted on the young!

Eventually I did have to move on with my life and get a “real” job.  Luckily for the first year that real job kept me in Happy Valley and Ernie let me pick up an occasional shift when a bartender needed a sub.  Staying in Happy Valley also gave me the opportunity to meet the love of my life, Jackie, who happened to be the sister of Judy Naginey, the bass player in the Phyrst Phamily.  Jackie and I celebrated 29 years of marriage earlier this month.

As I type this I am more than three decades removed from those days, yet I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday.  I can walk down the steps of the Phyrst and find my picture on the wall.  I can hear the words to “Saturday Night,” “The Unicorn Song,” and “MTA.”  I know the first song played on the stereo after the second set is American Pie. 

And this is just one man’s story.  There are hundreds, thousands, out there like it.  All composed and played out in a world created by Ernie.  Each one touched by so many others.

In my day, when a bartender received a tip it went into the communal tip jar on the center island of the bar, and you rang the bell above the jar.  Well, we all know what teacher says, so on the evening of Saturday, August 29th I’ll be in the Phyrst and I hope you will too – in spirit if not in person.  Because there is a new angel who’s about to get his wings, and that prohibition on beer in heaven is being lifted.  That’s right. Attaboy, Ernie.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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