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Robert Loncar, spent half of his life as the man in charge at Loncar’s

Robert M. Loncar

Robert M. Loncar

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Updated: August 8, 2012 6:15AM

The fanciest decorations at Loncar Liquors were probably the signs that said “Union Yes” and “Please Have Your ID Ready.”

But the red brick fortress — windowless, squat, and solid — anchored a corner in South Chicago, and by extension, a neighborhood.

Robert M. “Bobby” Loncar, who lived upstairs from the tavern at 3201 E. 92nd St. for half of his life, was the man in charge. He sponsored countless softball, baseball and basketball teams. He passed innumerable hats when somebody was ill, or had a death in the family.

He didn’t need an MBA to know that a good businessman changes with the times. His immigrant mother spoke to him in Croatian, but as Mexican immigrants moved into the Far Southeast Side, he learned to cook the tripe stew known as menudo, and he welcomed mariachi bands to the bar. He fed his patrons juicy fried chicken served with a famed life jacket-orange hot sauce.

Mr. Loncar, 84, of South Holland, died Tuesday after fighting his third and final bout of cancer, a disease he suspected he contracted from patrolling radiation-heavy Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped in Japan.

His Croatian immigrant parents started Loncar’s in 1924. His mother, Catherine, was an equal partner to her husband, Marko. Family lore says she ruled the bar with a meat cleaver on her hip, throwing out members of the Capone gang when they tried to muscle the Loncars into carrying their bootleg liquor during Prohibition.

The Loncars crafted their own beer and wine in the family living quarters above the tavern. When they were done making wine, they used the grapes to create a grappa-like white-lightning that old-time Chicagoans might say “put hair on your chest.”

“One time we had an [home hooch] explosion, and the neighbors wanted to know what happened,” said Mr. Loncar’s sister, Marie Maras. “She said ‘Oh, nothing, don’t worry about it. ’”

Mr. Loncar went to Sacred Heart grade school, then staffed with Croatian nuns and priests. He learned to appreciate the stringed instruments of tamburitza music, and the circle folk dance known as Kolo.

He enlisted in the Navy at 16. “He was one of the first shore patrols [after] Nagasaki was bombed,” said his niece, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Marcia Maras.

“He developed cancer after the war, and he said a lot of his buddies did, too, and he suspected it was from fallout,” said his great-grand niece, Stephanie Maras.

He never forgot the rubble of Nagasaki, and the desperation of the people. They used little trinkets to bargain hard for cigarettes from American GIs, he said.

When the war ended, Mr. Loncar joined the family business. The neighborhood was a blue-collar Chicago archetype, crisscrossed by steel bridges, train tracks and the Calumet River. When the steel mills were going strong, Loncar’s was filled with Irish, Polish, Serbian and Slovenian ironworkers, police officers and firefighters, relatives said. The mills soon drew Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, and the neighborhood — and Loncar’s — grew more diverse.

“His bar was open to all types of people,” said Fred Corrizales, a Mexican-American who worked at Loncar’s.

Women felt safe at Loncar’s. Birthdays and graduations were celebrated at the family tables in the back. “Before [the growth of] Walgreen’s, a lot of kids would be coming in for pop and snacks after school,” Marcia Maras said.

“If a house burned, [or] a guy lost their job, they either had a party or passed the hat in that joint,” said his nephew, Chicago Police Officer Edward Maras. “If anybody lost their mom or dad, there was always a benefit” at Loncar’s.

Mr. Loncar had a baseball bat and gun in the tavern, but he never seemed to have to use them, the officer said. If a fight broke out, it was usually “two brothers fighting, and I’d yell at their uncle over at the end of the bar, ‘Get over there and break that fight up,’” he said.

Still, Loncar’s had its share of heated rhetoric. Edward Maras remembers former Ald. Eddie “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak ripping into some campaign workers at the bar because he felt they let him down: “He said they should have worked hard enough, ‘That’s not how you win an election in Chicago.’”

For decades, the fanciest drinks there were Canadian Club, Seagram’s V.O. and the Balkan plum brandy known as Slivovitz. But Mr. Loncar was always looking for ways to improve. In addition to offering his fried chicken and shrimp, he eventually hired “girl bartenders who knew how to make these ‘girl drinks,’” as one relative put it.

Mr. Loncar worshipped at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. He always attended an annual memorial for the parish’s 12 young men killed in Vietnam — reputedly the largest loss in the war in any parish in the country, said Father Mark Brummel, director of the National Shrine of St. Jude in Chicago. “He would show up for that every year. He was really kind of a loyal person. He’d donate money.”

His loyalty was repaid when the bar was damaged in a fire. Tradesmen patrons worked on their own time to help rebuild it, his sister said.

Mr. Loncar tired of the grind in his later years, saying “I don’t want to die there,” his nephew said. He retired and enjoyed trips to see his grand-niece’s graduations in Providence and Green Bay. He walked a couple of miles each day at River Oaks mall in Calumet City.

His son Mark died before him. He is survived by his wife, Sherry. Funeral services are Saturday, with closing prayers at 10:15 a.m. at Elmwood Chapel, 11200 S. Ewing, before the procession to Holy Cross Cemetery, Calumet City.

Though he enjoyed Balkan music, “He preferred mariachi, to be honest with you,” his nephew said. Mariachi performers are to play at his funeral luncheon.

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