CINCINNATI - While former Bengals quarterback Greg Cook lived his last few years sick and often destitute, he found a home and a safe haven next door to Weber’s Cafe. Bengals great Bob Trumpy said owner George Young helped Cook through rough times – just as Young did for many people in hardscrabble South Cumminsville over the years.
Trumpy recalled that Wednesday when he and hundreds of customers and friends stopped by Young’s restaurant and bar to help him close the 122-year-old cornerstone at Dreman and Dawson Avenues.
“George used to take care of Greg Cook. He gave him a place to live, food and money,” Trumpy said. “However long Greg lived here, he lived that long because of George.”
Young, 74, was busy grilling steaks outside for a huge lunch crowd that filled the outdoor patio and queued through the dining room and bar. Between flipping steaks, Young shook hands and spoke with Trumpy and other well-wishers. Asked about Cook, Young was modestly reserved.
“He was just a good friend. I met him through Tom Gray (former Bengals equipment manager). He was a talented artist, architect, cook. He got a little destitute and I helped him out,” Young said. “He had some retirement and pension at the end. That’s all.”
But people in the crowd agreed that Young has been a Robin Hood to the community since he bought the place 27 years ago. He cashed their checks, ran their tabs, forgave their debts and gave out free meals, said Nancy O’Keefe, who worked there 37 years as cook, server and bartender.
“He did so many things for so many people. The lady across the street said George has been like her second dad,” O’Keefe said.
“When my son heard George was closing, he said, ‘What are the people in the neighborhood going to do? ‘ ” said customer Rich Kuhlman. “It’s going to be hard on a lot of them. These people don’t use banks; George has been their banker.”
Closing Day at Weber’s was a day for reminiscing with old friends. There was laughter everywhere. Most in the crowd were senior men who grew up nearby before the factories, schools and churches closed and the population died out. Some played on amateur sports teams that the restaurant sponsored. Trophies lined up on shelves encircled the dining room, and photos of sports heroes – Pete Rose and his dad played on the bar’s football teams, and Tommy Helms used to eat there – covered the walls.
Back in the corner, 80-year-old Eddie Miller, 81-year-old John Merritt and 70-year-old Art Kessnick reminisced about their sports-playing days in the 1950s. Kessnick said he used to jump on a train that passed the bar and ride it to the Solway ballfields on Spring Grove Avenue – and back. Miller was in the Reds’ organization for three years. Merritt had a Reds tryout at Crosley Field and hit a home run over the left field fence.
“A gang of my friends was down there, thank heavens, or no one would have believed it,” Merritt said.
When Ralph West stopped by the table, Merritt was quick to tease him.
“The girls were always after him, but one got away, and I got her,” Merritt laughed.
Don Zillich said he hadn’t stepped foot in Weber’s since 1954. He said he played on sports teams with Miller and Merritt but he joined the service in 1952 and moved away. He drove all the way from Brown County “to reminisce.”
“I went to school with most of them,” he said, pointing toward the closed Garfield Elementary.
Bert Welage said he started coming to Weber's with his club. "We started with 13 members but we're down to seven. We're dying off."
After Young bought the bar in 1987, Welage, former owner Ed Oblinger and Young continued to sponsor sports teams and local athletes. One of their greatest thrills, Welage said, happened when a bowler they sponsored, Kevin Brady, won the $90,000 top prize in a Thanksgiving Day tournament at Western Bowl.
“We each got $22,000 and we put some of that aside for the teams,” Welage said.
Welage is also proud of the bar softball team’s Metro Open championship in 1986.
O’Keefe turned melancholy for a moment when she stepped outside and took a break from serving food and drinks.
“I did not expect so many people. It’s sad,” she said. “George’s health isn’t the best. His legs have been giving out on him … I’m going to be 69 this year. I’ve got 12 grandkids and No. 8 great-grandchild was just born two days ago. I help out at Amvets, so I’ll be busy.”
O'Keefe said she'll miss the good people and the special free meals they provided for their customers and the community: the Good Friday fish fry when they'd feed 400 people, the Thanksgiving Day turkey feast when she'd cook 10 turkeys, and the October "garbage can dinner" when they'd stuff a can with polish sausage, corn, onions, potatoes and cabbage.
"My favorite thing was hanging the Christmas lights. We'd tell everybody we had more lights than the zoo does," she said.
Welage said most of the customers these days were oldtimers who no longer lived in the neighborhood but came back to a place where everybody knew their name.
"There were maybe 200 guys who came here every month and another 40 guys who came three or four times a month. They're not going to know where to go. This was like a second home to them," Welage said.
Young, who worked across the street at Ohio Knife Co. for 24 years before buying Weber’s, isn’t going far away. He lives upstairs in an apartment above the restaurant.
“I've been coming here since I was in fifth grade (to eat). It’s just time,” Young said, smiling. "They know where I'll be. I'll be at the Elmwood VFW Post 1042."
Young said he would keep the bar open until about 10 p.m. Wednesday night. Then he’d turn out the lights for the last time.