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Mary Jo McGuire dead at 85, helped run Butch McGuire’s, famed Chicago singles bar

Her funeral Thursday will be livestreamed on Zoom. She had an infectious laugh and welcoming nature that equaled that of her husband, Division Street saloon owner Butch McGuire.

Mary Jo McGuire and her husband Butch McGuire.
Mary Jo McGuire and her husband Butch McGuire operated his namesake tavern at 20 W. Division St.
Sun-Times file

Mary Jo McGuire helped her husband operate his namesake Near North Side saloon Butch McGuire’s, often called one of the nation’s first singles bars.

Mrs. McGuire, 85, died of heart problems Feb. 11, two days after she’d been released from COVID-19 care at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, according to her children. She and her husband had bought a second home in Rochester after he had a heart transplant at Mayo in 1995. He lived 11 more years.

They were a good team. Mrs. McGuire kept a close eye on the books while her husband was the gregarious host of the tavern at 20 W. Division St.

“She figured out pretty quickly he was not a very organized bookkeeper or bill-payer,” said their son Bobby McGuire, who now owns Butch McGuire’s.

It was thanks to her, he said, that vendors and employees got their checks on time.

Mary Jo McGuire and her husband Butch McGuire operated his namesake tavern at 20 W. Division St.
Mary Jo McGuire.
Provided

The saloon always kept a “Donovan booth” open for her. She grew up Mary Jo Donovan in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where she won the Miss DeKalb Feeds contest. Her father was a grain elevator operator.

She was working as a flight attendant for American Airlines in the early 1960s when she met her future husband in Chicago. He was smitten but had to contend with a formidable romantic rival, their children said: Eric Nesterenko of the Chicago Blackhawks.

In 1963, they eloped at Cicero’s St. Mary of Czestochowa Parish.

Two years earlier, her husband had opened Butch McGuire’s, a bar where many who were new to Chicago found jobs and lifelong friends.

It quickly became the nucleus of a lively strip bursting with singles ready to mingle as the birth control pill and sexual revolution upended traditional postwar mores. The tavern is credited with thousands of marriages and the invention of the Harvey Wallbanger and the Skip and Go Naked cocktails, not to mention Christmas displays that transform it into a wonderland.

“The saloon started out as kind of an ‘Our Gang’ type of place and caught on big,” Mrs. McGuire once told the Chicago Tribune. “The secret, though, is that Butch was always there, seven days a week, 12 hours a day.”

Its female-friendly reputation helped, too. Butch’s touted its hiring of women as bartenders. The saloon reserved barstools for female patrons and was known for protecting them from harassment.

Mrs. McGuire had an infectious laugh and welcoming nature that equaled her husband’s.

“She was a very loyal friend to many,” said their daughter Lauretta Stewart.

“Our Christmas dinners were 40 and 50 people,” Bobby McGuire said.

Another son, Terrance McGuire, said she was an understanding mother who could be counted on in a pinch to reassure her kids: “I won’t tell your father.”

Mrs. McGuire’s other survivors include her sister Marcia Nicely and seven grandchildren.

A private family funeral is planned at 1 p.m. Thursday, with the Mass livestreamed on Zoom through Conboy–Westchester Funeral Home. The tavern will be closed from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday for a private memorial.