Minneapolis

Philip Barker, legendary Nye’s bartender, dies at 74

2021-05-19 06:38:49 –

If you were one of Phil Barker’s regulars, he’d be pouring your drink as you walked through the door.

And a lot of them walked through the door of Nye’s Polonaise Room, the legendary bar in Minneapolis that was like a never-ending neighborhood party.

Barker was behind the bar at Nye’s for “47 years, two months, three days and a few hours,” said his daughter, Robin Thorsen of Brooklyn Park. He started there in 1969 after finishing a stint in the Navy, and it was the only job he ever had. When Nye’s closed in 2016, it was the last call for Barker’s working life.

Barker, of Brooklyn Center, died April 29 of pancreatic cancer at age 74.

Barker often worked six days a week for 10 to 12 hours, but never complained. Quite the opposite.

“It wasn’t a real job for him. It was having fun,” Thorsen said. “He loved waiting on people and having them come back and getting to know them.”

One of the people he got to know at Nye’s became his wife, Rita, a whirlwind courtship that led to a wedding six months after their first date. The couple recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.

Barker took care of his regular customers and expected the same from them, his daughter said. One time a regular couple failed to show up. Barker asked around and found they’d gone to a different bar.

He called the bar, got them on the phone and said, “What are you doing there?”

They came back to Nye’s.

To get time with their dad, his three daughters would sometimes go to the bar on Saturday mornings and hang out together while he cleaned and prepared for opening.

But on Sundays, his one day off, he’d usually do things with them, including attending their swim meets. In later years, he enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren, often driving them to school or to sports events.

Barker was an alcoholic who got sober in 1976 and maintained his sobriety even as he worked for decades at what Esquire magazine once named the best bar in America. Over the years, he helped other co-workers give up drinking.

Just as he kept the same job, Barker lived in the same city where he grew up and graduated from Brooklyn Center High School. Fun-loving and quick with a joke, he didn’t mind poking fun at himself.

Barker was an avid golfer but wasn’t very good at it, his daughter said. He played with the same group of buddies who razzed him about his skills — or lack thereof. One memorable day, Barker made his first birdie. His friends later presented him with the framed scorecard of his round.

He loved to eat, especially breakfast at Fat Nat’s Eggs in Brooklyn Park, where he’d order a meal with two eggs — and six more eggs on the side.

In the months before Nye’s closed, the Minnesota Twins invited Barker to throw out the first pitch at Target Field.

Barker’s cancer progressed quickly. When his doctor told him he had only a week to live, he went out for breakfast at Fat Nat’s one last time with his childhood buddy and best friend, Ernie Erickson.

The quick course of his illness was a blessing, Thorsen said: “He did not suffer. He had no pain.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Barker is survived by daughters Holly Paul of Rush City and Megan Shea of Blaine; six grandchildren; a sister, and many friends.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, with visitation one hour before, at Gearty-Delmore Robbinsdale Chapel, 3888 W. Broadway. The family requests that guests dress casually.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402

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