Steve Cunneen, who ran Cunneen’s tavern for almost half a century, dead at 86

‘He never wanted it to be a sports bar, people yelling at the television,’ his wife said of the Devon Avenue bar. ‘He just wanted a place people could talk.’

SHARE Steve Cunneen, who ran Cunneen’s tavern for almost half a century, dead at 86
Steve Cunneen ran Cunneen’s bar at 1424 W. Devon Ave. for nearly half a century.

Steve Cunneen ran Cunneen’s bar at 1424 W. Devon Ave. for nearly half a century.

Carly Behm / The Phoenix

When she was 20 and he was 42, Belinda Plemons was working as a bartender for Steve Cunneen, a no-nonsense boss she respected.

She moved out of state, married and started a family. Then, in 2006, when she was 49 and going through a divorce, she returned home to Chicago. One night, she decided to drop in at Cunneen’s, the Devon Avenue tavern that still felt like home.

She hadn’t seen her old boss for 18 years. But when Steve Cunneen came in to close up at 1 a.m., they talked like no time had passed. At 5 a.m., they were still talking.

Talking turned into dinners. As the weeks went by, he showed her his apartment building, a Rogers Park pearl he’d restored and filled with furniture and bookcases he crafted himself. The antiques and woodwork gleamed. The building next door was so close that a sparrow couldn’t fly in between. But you couldn’t tell. He’d put in stained glowing glass windows that camouflaged the closeness.

“I told him, ‘You’re like a bluebird,’ ’’ she said, telling him the male bluebird shows females the place it’s picked out for a nest, hoping one will stick around. “The females come, and, if they don’t like it, they fly away. But when I saw the nest, it was just beautiful.”

“Oh,” she thought, “I could be happy here.”

In 2010, they started nesting. They lived together for eight years, and then he took his mother’s rings, which he’d kept in the back of a drawer, got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.

In 2018, the first-time groom — at 83 years old — and his 62-year-old bride entered their wedding reception at Chief O’Neill’s bar on Elston Avenue to the Etta James’ song “At Last.”

Steve and Belinda Cunneen.

Steve and Belinda Cunneen.

Provided

“He said to me, ‘I really want to be a good husband,’ ” Belinda Cunneen said, “ ‘and, if I’m not being one, you can let me know.’ ”

Mr. Cunneen operated his namesake tavern for just shy of 50 years, until his death on Feb. 2. He was 86 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

The corner bar was just like him. No frills.

Cunneen’s tavern at 1424 W. Devon Ave.

Cunneen’s tavern at 1424 W. Devon Ave.

Sun-Times file

It has wooden floors, dim lighting and a clock with a glued-on image of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, an ironic nod to a political boss who was about the opposite of the bar’s beat generation-meets-hippie sensibility.

There was no jukebox. If it had been up to Mr. Cunneen, his turntable would have spun jazz all night. But he believed the bartender on duty should be the boss.

“Bartenders played whatever they wanted,” said Bill Savage, who was one of them for 27 years at Cunneen’s and teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University. “He wanted chess boards on the tables. Longhairs welcome, shorthairs welcome. Eccentricity was not just tolerated, it was embraced.”

Dogs were fine. Depending on the tolerance of whoever was on duty, you might even find a canine customer on a bar stool.

In the early days, Mr. Cunneen tended bar himself. But as the years rolled by, and his trusted staff became more like family, patrons were more likely to find him reading a book or drinking coffee and working a crossword puzzle — in pen — than working the bar.

His regulars included factory workers, students and professors from Loyola University Chicago and some who’d come over from Maloney’s funeral home up the street after paying their respects.

Comic Louis Black and National Book Award-winning author Larry Heinemann dropped in. So did native Rogers Parker Barbara Harris, who became a movie star after debuting in the first number of the first-ever show at Second City. And Minnette Goodman, the mother of folksinger Steve Goodman.

And when a celebrity did come in, “Nobody would care,” Savage said.

If a guy with a fancy pool cue came in, “Steve would beat him,” said Jim Gallery, a patron and friend.

There was no food license, so customers ordered in — pizza from J.B. Alberto’s, pasta from Calo’s, Cuban specialties from La Unica. Sometimes, people would bring in cookies or brownies they baked at home.

Mr. Cunneen loved to read mysteries and histories of the American revolution, the Civil War and World War II. He’d swap books with his regulars, giving the bar “a book club feeling,” Savage said.

“He never wanted it to be a sports bar, people yelling at the television,” his wife said. “He just wanted a place people could talk.”

“Mr. Cunneen was always warm and delightful whenever I visited,” said Jonathan Wilson, a Loyola theater professor and director. “He knew lots of interesting people who were regulars in his establishment.”

On Tuesdays and Fridays, the “Old Geezers Club” holds court. Ranging in age from about 75 to the upper 80s, they arrive in the afternoon to talk politics.

Mr. Cunneen wouldn’t say much. But what he did say usually was worth listening to.

His wife remembered a time he grew exasperated at a patron who was going on and on about being alone at Christmas.

Mr. Cunneen told him, “Look at me, I’m working here and having to listen to you.”

But kids saw through his gruff demeanor. They’d crack up when he’d demand, “When are you gettin’ a job?”

If people had money problems, he helped them out. He told his wife he thought of loans as gifts. That way, he didn’t worry about them. Almost always, he got paid back.

One time, 10 years or more after Mr. Cunneen had given a man a loan of about $5,500, the recipient sent him a letter with a $2,000 check and reported he was doing well. Over time, he repaid the debt in full, his wife said.

Mr. Cunneen was generous with his staff, too. A few years ago, the bar had to shut down for repairs for a month or so because of a partial ceiling collapse.

“I came back to work,” Savage said, “and there’s an envelope, with my shift pay for every week we were closed.”

Mr. Cunneen grew up in Evergreen Park. His mother died when he was around 4, and he was adopted by her sister. She was single and worked as a nurse, so she placed him in a nearby boarding school.

When she got married five years later, young Steve was happy to go live with his aunt and his kind, adoptive father.

Because of his boarding school experience, he learned to be self-sufficient. When something needed to be done, he did it, whether it was home repairs or helping someone in need. Also because of boarding school, he never, ever complained about food.

“No matter what you cooked,” his wife said, “He would be, like, ‘That was really good, honey.’ ”

He went to Leo High School, where he chafed at the discipline commonly practiced at 1950s Catholic schools. “Like a prison sentence,” he once told Gallery.

He worked as a golf caddy. And he’d spend a month or two during summers at a farm operated by his uncle by marriage, Pat Barrett, a radio actor who played “Uncle Ezra” on the old WLS-AM National Barn Dance broadcasts.

From Barrett, he picked up some charmingly anachronistic sayings. If caught by surprise, “He would just say something like, ‘Snap my garters!’ ” Belinda Cunneen said.

Before buying the bar, Mr. Cunneen worked as a draftsman and a traveling salesman, saving money to attend the University of Illinois’ then-new Chicago Circle campus when he was 32.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he played 16-inch softball and sponsored men’s and women’s teams. When both won their Loyola Park league championships in 1986, “It was just chaos” and joy, Savage said, “all the players dancing on the bar.”

As Mr. Cunneen and his friends got older, they switched from softball to golf, favoring the Chicago Park District’s Robert A. Black Golf Course on Pratt Boulevard.

For about 25 years, he also played guitar in a wedding band.

“He was a classic Chicago guy,” Savage said. “He’s a pool player. He’s a golfer. He’s a 16-inch softball player. A White Sox fan. He’s into politics. He’s into history. He was into food culture. He loved Asian food, new restaurants, steakhouses. He played guitar.”

In his 70s, “He decided he was going to learn to dance,” his wife said. “He learned how to swing. So we would go dancing at the Green Dolphin on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays we would go to the Green Mill” to enjoy the Alan Gresik Swing Shift Orchestra.

If she encouraged him to dress up a little, he’d tell her, “We aren’t going to the prom, honey.”

He loved listening to the Three Tenors and Andrea Bocelli. “Music like this,” he’d say, “replenishes the soul.”

Mr. Cunneen also is survived by his stepdaughters Katharine and Hillary and a grandchild.

A celebration of life is planned at his bar March 26, timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of its founding in 1972.

“He was just a guy,” Gallery said, “who put people together.”

On the last day of his life, he told his wife he was at peace with dying.

“I think I’m OK with that,” he said. “But I don’t think you are.”

Steve and Belinda Cunneen at a California vineyard in 2020.

Steve and Belinda Cunneen at a California vineyard in 2020.

Provided

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