Neighbor Spotlight: In Memory • John Okopinski

The beginning of this story was published in December, 2002. I wrote it in November of 2002. Nine years ago.

 I walked into the Falcon Bowl and slid onto a bar stool and gave barkeep John Okopinski a nod.

“Hi John, gimme a Klisch.” 

The neighborhood scene changes but the Okopinskis keep the taps flowing and the bowling pins jumping through it all. It’s a good deal and Riverwesters know it.

I picture the collective soul of Riverwest floating above Fratney and Bremen Street along Clarke Street, somewhere between St. Casimir’s steeple and the Falcon Bowl.

“Jesus, Bowling, and Beer.”

Yesterday, Friday, October 21, I attended John Okopinski’s funeral inside beautiful St. Casimir’s Church which is now part of Our Lady of Divine Providence.

John was 65 and was in ill health for a good bit of time and in the end, like for all of us, there was the end. The end for a man and a life that touched so many.

The church was filled with those John had touched. Father Tim Kitzke did not know John well, but his eyes told him the crowd loved John.

Father Tim bet that most of us would walk over to the Falcon Bowl and raise a beer in John’s memory. He was right.

He also offered to hear our confessions after.

As a man who anchored the place we call and he called Falcon Bowl, John kept a steady hand on the business. Lynn was there by his side. They had one son, Patrick.

The photos on display at the church showed  a full life. Marriage, a child, vacations, happy times, trophies, friends and relatives, all things you might expect. He was a Marine during the Vietnam War. Something I didn’t know.

I always thought that John and Lynn anchored our section of Riverwest. They kept the old ways going.When the world was changing so fast that there  seemed to be no markers, there was the Falcon Bowl and a seat at the bar. The TV above the cooler.

A nod and a beer. And that’s not all.

The old ways lived on downstairs in one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country.

No one was “bowling alone” at the Falcon Bowl. Cribbage leagues, Dart Ball and softball teams meet here.

Those descriptions may sound like I am just talking about old timers, but the Falcon Bowl attracted younger folk in the neighborhood, too.  As the neighborhood changed the Okopinskis seemed to adapt to the new faces on the street  and welcomed them into the bar.  okopinski_michelle__shelly.jpg

When the Riverwest Co-op opened across the street in 2001 I wondered what they thought  about their new neighbors. But it didn’t take long for the  blending to occur.

We bought beer, they bought coffee and eventually  food from the Cafe. We  rented the hall for special  occasions and they always gave us a fair price on the hall rental price. Some joined in the games at the Falcon. Shelly McClone, in the photo with John at left (far right) was John’s partner for cribbage up until he couldn’t count the cards anymore.

Some think that a person’s soul doesn’t leave immediately. They hang around a while and  observe. I’m not saying I believe that, but I would   wish it were true at least for last Friday evening.

We all said good bye to John at the Chruch. Lynn walked down the aisle after Mass carrying the box containing the earthly remains turned to ash of her lifelong partner, friend and husband.

So for a while it is John’s soul that inhabits that space between the steeple and the bowling alley, hall and bar. The man activated his community with his business. His soul could see on a Friday evening a neighborhood full of life as his friends left the church and walked down the street to the bar.

In our hearts we all knew it would be so. And it was fitting.

At the Church I talked  to Wa. Well, that’s his  name if you don’t know  him.

He’s a gregarious man, at home at the bar, and a friend of John.

I asked how long he had been coming to  the  Falcon. He couldn’t remember. Forever, or so it seemed, and that was the best way  to think of it.

We both knew we were talking about more than a man, but of a sense of place and a way people  can be together.

And what will happen now? We shall see how  it goes. But it is clear to those who knew John and experienced the culture of the Falcon Bowl  that some of the old ways are the good ways for people to relate.

Today is Sunday and I saw Lynn Okopinski and her son Patrick outside the Falcon. They were  sweeping up debris from the sidewalk and street. Patrick had a young anxious black dog with him. Lynn loved her dogs. This was a new one, rescued, I imagine, from the pound. He was  growling fiercely at another dog across the street. The sun was shining. It was a warm day. Lynn was smiling. Life does go on despite our losses.

Lynn’s role in running the  Falcon was to assist John. She works at Boston Store. She deferred to him on decisions about the bar business. Kenny runs the bowling alley and the bartenders are all friends and part of the scene. With the loss of her husband she also lost the hand that guided the business.

The building  is owned by the Polish Falcons of America, Nest 725, which sponsors events and sports activities in the hall. All things in time. But  Lynn and the staff should know they have a lot of  friends in the  neighborhood.

I’m sure that John had his own opinions on things in the city, neighborhood and world. He always seemed level-headed  and not overly judgemental.  He had a calmness about him. He surely saw and  experienced many things in life. Not to mention  what being a barkeep teaches one about human  nature.

Especially a bar on the corner of Clarke and Fratney in Riverwest.

If I were to be judged, I would want John Okopinski on the jury. He was a fair man who kept up traditions that predated his ownership of the business.

He will be missed.