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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Last call at Wonder's Pub
A neighborhood institution closes its doors
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Credit:Stephen Casey

Forget the Kohl Center. There's no place louder than the UW Natatorium during the boys' state high school swimming meet. We pack ourselves into the upper bleachers two Saturdays ago and hear it for ourselves. The roar is a sonic sundae. The piercing screams of teenagers blend with the course bellows of granddads. The noise bounces from the floor tiles to the ceiling beams and back down.

In lane 3, the shaved-headed members of the East High School 200 free relay are on their way to a school record.

A poor turn can make the difference between a record performance and a good one. As East's last swimmer flies from the block, assistant coach Steve "Wonder" Weakly glances at his stopwatch and leans nervously toward the pool from his position on the deck.

In the confusion of the finish, the East boys can't immediately determine their time, and they huddle together, pointing up to the giant electronic read-out. And there's Weakly, arms raised high above his head, fists pumping. This is what a coach looks like after a school record is broken.

It's shaping up to be quite a day for Weakly. A day with two endings. The State Meet is the finish of a long, satisfying high school swim season. After the meet concludes in the late afternoon, Volunteer Assistant Coach Weakly morphs into Small Businessman Weakly, and he invites the East families and swimmers to his beloved tavern, Wonder's Pub at Schenks Corners. After 18 years, tonight will be the last call for Wonder's. Weakly has decided to leave the bar business.

Those of us on the near east side have come to know Wonder's in the best way a community can see a tavern: an extension of our neighborhood. It's a communal living room on a cold Saturday night, a game of cards on a warm spring evening, door wide open to the street and those who seek refuge from it. None of us are ready to see that door closed.

The last night at Wonder's is one part celebration, one part wake. Thom Byerley, a neighbor and musician whose Lonesome Rogues bluegrass band played weekly at the bar, shows up in a dark dress suit worn in solemn salute.

Part of the appeal of Wonder's Pub is physical. The wood-soaked layout features front window table spaces built above the main floor, affording the patron an overview of the sidewalks and the busy intersection of Winnebago and Atwood.

These are the tables taken over by the East swimmers, still dressed in their team jackets of purple and gold. Coach Wonder opens the fryers and soda taps to the boys. "Keep the mugs!" Wonder tells them. "And the salt shakers!"

"Steve! Steve! Steve! Steve!" chant the boys. The rest of the crowd, many of whom are longtime customers who have no idea that the barkeep is also a swim coach, turn around and soak up the energy.

My wife, Peggy, and I roam back and forth across the upper railing, visiting with neighbors. It's a sweet spot to look across the place and enjoy the site of familiar faces.

But there are other things to notice, too. Things that reveal the edges of change that are never pretty. The massive chalkboard that hung high above the main dining floor, the one that displayed the bar's great food and beer specials, sits on the oak floor, resting against the wall, retired.

Over behind the bar, longtime employee Sid works in front of liquor shelves that are so bare they look like they could be holding the basement stock of a deactivated frat house.

What's the last booze left on the final night of a bar's 18-year existence? Malibu Rum, Southern Comfort, Captain Morgan's, a nasty-looking bottle of Kahlua, and a container of liquid with "Mountain" something on the label.

Alas, Wonder's, much to my own satisfaction, has always been a beer lover's destination. I make my way into Sid's line of sight to gather in another pint of Guinness. It's the last tap beer among the 8 or 10 mostly Wisconsin draft brews served. Folks are now starting to resort to the bottle and can options, including Pabst in long necks and tall boys. Even those are running out.

It's 7:45 p.m.

Most of us harbor a fantasy of Wonder standing up to make comments of some sort. It's a dream, because while Steve is a gregarious personality, he'd rather face a firing squad than call attention to himself. Still, everywhere you look people glance away from their conversations, crane their necks, searching out Wonder, hoping not to miss it if it happens.

The tears welling in Wonder's eyes as he accepts hugs and handshakes say more than any speech. I ask him what the best thing about owning Wonder's has been. "The best?" he says. "The people." The worst? Steve pauses, looking overwhelmed as he takes in the crowded bar room. "Finding out how you touched their lives."

It's nearly down to ice water and cola syrup when one of the two televisions above the bar blinks off, like the first of two eyeballs to close on the proceedings. A roar goes up as Wonder climbs on top of the bar and raises his bottle to the crowd.

"Thank you!" Wonder shouts. "It's been a great 18 years because of you," he says over the muffle of rock music.

Some say in the age of sports bars and franchises that the days of places like Wonder's are numbered. I say people like Wonder are numbered. Guys who wake up at 5 in the morning to volunteer poolside at their alma mater. Guys who end the same day after midnight closing down their neighborhood joint.

Thanks, Steve. We'll always remember that time at Wonder's.

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