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Deer Park’s unique Annual Clover Classic offers cheers to 25 years!

Publican Tony Henry, leading the very 1st Clover Classic's "People's Shamrock Parade"
Courtesy/Deer Park Irish Pub
Publican Tony Henry, leading the very 1st Clover Classic's "People's Shamrock Parade"

Deer Park Irish Pub is gearing up to celebrate its 25th year under the ownership of Tony Henry with a full 3-day version of its annual Clover Classic.

From the lowering and tapping of the “Gilded Green Beer Barrel,” through hearty games of Keg Toss and Irish Road Bowling, the People’s Shamrock Parade and two nights of spirited music and dance, this years 25th Annual Clover Classic promises to celebrate the feast day of Saint Patrick in legendary Deer Park style.

Bar owner, known as a publican, Tony Henry is proud to offer this unique opportunity to learn what makes the holiday and its namesake so very special and considers the pub's cozy location on the city's west side in the Hungry Hill district of the historic Bloomingdale neighborhood the perfect place to do it.

WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses his early days as pub owner with Henry, the evolution of this celebration and how its significance as well as its community impact fuels his own passion.

Event Information:

25th Clover Classic
Deer Park Irish Pub, Fort Wayne
March 16 to Saturday, March 18.

Find a compete schedule of activities on the Deer Park Pub Facebook Page.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Tony Henry, welcome.

Tony Henry: Hi, Julia.

Julia Meek: Now with St. Patty's Day on the horizon, this is your season and a very special milestone this year. So in a word, how does all of that feel about now?

Tony Henry: Mystical.

Julia Meek: Okay, that's a great word.

Tony Henry: Mystical, mmhmmm.

Julia Meek: Not overwhelming?

Tony Henry: No, no; planning uh, very accordingly. I know this is a big one. And so we're taking good steps and making sure that nothing's falling through the cracks.

Julia Meek: So let's take a quick look back at what inspired this act of social enterprise 25 years ago, Tony, and how Deer Park became, honestly, your signature spot?

Tony Henry: Well, Julia, we took baby steps at the very beginning. It was a pub that had a very small clientele of people coming. It was a Deer Park Irish Pub, and I wanted to take it at a higher level, set the bar higher. And I did that by starting to celebrate the feast of St. Patrick.

By doing that we just basically ambled around the block, we call it the shortest parade in the world. (laughs) I don't know if Guinness will hold fame that. Anyway, it's a small parade. We started with very humble origins and it's gotten to be pretty big now.

Julia Meek: What is it about that location, in particular being right there next to University of St. Francis?

Tony Henry: Well, I feel a real affinity for St. Francis. And that's because eight of my young adult years, I was a Franciscan. And so I stumbled across this pub, seeing a for sale sign. I thought, Man, this would really be awesome to have a pub next to St. Francis, these Franciscan Sisters. And so I bought it. And from there, it's history.

Julia Meek: So it had to be maybe your lucky charm with that little story. (laughs) You also have such a nice variety, as you say, the faculty, the students on a very busy, literally crossroads right there. You look to all sectors of the community to come and see you over at the pub too.

Tony Henry: Yeah, it really offers such an eclectic pub experience, because we do have professors that come in, coaches, students, a lot of nursing graduate students, of course, the undergraduates really don't start turning 21 until they're seniors.

But also we're situated in a neighborhood, you know it's the Hungry Hill neighborhood, and we have Dana factory workers that will come in and we have just all facets of people. And that's what makes the pub so colorful.

Julia Meek: And that's a great nickname from many, many, many, many decades ago for the neighborhood Hungry Hill.

Tony Henry: Yes.

Julia Meek: And the multi generational group of people that are there loving the spot. Now, just how far has the whole Irish Pub concept evolved since you have been running it?

Tony Henry: Well, Julia, when we took to our first parade, we were kind of a ragtag bunch. (chuckles) And I'd say we're like maybe the 12 disciples taking it out into Viola Avenue.

And now I suspect they'll they'll be a good four or 500 people that will amble down that Viola Avenue and back up Leesburg.

So I think that we've marketed it in such a way where we want people to have an experience, and it's not just about bellying up to the bar and drinking green beer, but it's giving people an impact, and also reminding them that it's more than about just the green bearer, but that there's a man behind this-- St. Patrick, and he's one of my heroes.

Julia Meek: So your St. Patrick's celebrations are 25 years unbelievably legend by now. In the meantime, the other 364 days of the year, Tony, how do you maintain the spirit and the joy and the camaraderie of the Irish Pub cheer that the place just exudes?

Tony Henry: Well, the Irish of course love to party and love a celebration. And so what I've done throughout the rest of the calendar year is also celebrate other events like Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday (chuckles) and Dyngus Day Easter Monday we'll have a Polish dinner and accordion player and we'll do Polish dances.

And so throughout the year, we just like to celebrate special events and special days!

Julia Meek: Or we could just say celebrate--put the period right there. It seems like every day in your world, Tony is a special day. Does it feel like that as you do, working with such a very social situation with that community that is like a family by now?

Tony Henry: Yes, yes, it's a family and we know each other, all we basically are regulars. And then the regulars bring in new friends and they become patrons of the Deer Park and then it goes on and on. And then we also begin losing our regulars.

Julia Meek: Just like a family.

Tony Henry: Just like a family, a connection.

Julia Meek: Indeed. Meanwhile, just how do the many craft beer accolades that you've received over these years continue to set you apart?

Tony Henry: We reach out to all parts of our country, of the East Coast, the West Coast and we try to find those beers that are hard to find. And somehow we are able to lure them into our pub and they are some specialty beers that we have folks even coming in from Ohio buying these beers, and Michigan.

We have a, we have a lot of followers on our Facebook fans and we promote our craft beers and we let them know what's coming in and they gravitate towards these drafts.

Julia Meek: So again, it sounds like an extended family affair, all led by perhaps the grandfather of them all--Tony. Is beer your drink of choice?

Tony Henry: Yes, beer is my drink of choice. No doubt, especially IPAs. IPAs will make my day!

Julia Meek: (chuckles) And making your day as making the rest of Fort Wayne's day often, very good.

Tony Henry: Yeah! (laughs)

Julia Meek: Very good. Now you are extremely landlocked over there at your little corner of the world at Leesburg and Spring Street ,parking and facility wise. So how do you make that work on a regular basis?

Tony Henry: St. Francis gifts me, every year for St. Patty's Day they allow my patrons to park on their lot. Of course, I reciprocate by reaching that little pot of gold and giving them a nice stipend for letting us park on their lot.

Julia Meek: That's great. But once again, what about the other 364 days of the year? How do you make everything work in that tiny little space? Is it always better to be full? (chuckles) Standing room only?

Tony Henry: Yes, you know, it's 45, is the seating but whenever we throw a party we always have to pitch a tent and in the tent we're able to accommodate more folks.

Fortunately, I have a couple of empty lots behind the pub and I just had people park on those lots and somehow miraculously, we get the people on our lot and they're able to come in and enjoy a great day of feasting.

Julia Meek: You also have a lovely outdoor patio facility.

Tony Henry: Yes.

Julia Meek: And that is usually full of good cheer and good friends. So you keep it going good for you. And like any good Irish Pub, music is essential. What do you feel music adds to one's life because it's really important in your own life too, I know.

Tony Henry: Well since we have so many flavors of folks coming in with rich talents, like this weekend, we'll have the Brogan Family Distractions, they'll be playing some Irish music, so do a session for us.

Then one weekend we'll have country music and then the next we'll just have light rock. What's cool about it is that different genres of music that's played in the Park attracts different people. The music enriches our evenings, and often Saturday afternoons we'll have music and it just, it lightens the soul and helps people just to have a joyful time.

Julia Meek: And how do you make it fit in that little space?

Tony Henry: It's, it's a miracle. (laughs) It takes a miracle! And Julia we just, we make it happen.

Julia Meek: And everybody loves it.

Tony Henry: Mmhmm. It's very intimate.

Julia Meek: That's great. That's good. So obviously your penchant for celebrations is legend, as we're saying. What makes your Clover Classic, especially this 25th year of celebration, so very special?

Tony Henry: It's our programming, and we're having a trifecta this year. (chuckles) We start on Thursday, St. Patty's Day Eve, and we'll lower the green keg of beer off the billboard. It's hanging from the billboard on the catwalk and then we lower it onto a bier, and that's a "b-i-e-r," a bier, a little platform.

We'll take into the pub, we'll tap the green beer and a bagpiper will actually lead the green keg into the pub and then the following day, which is St. Patrick's then we'll start out the tent opening, and then we have the cake toss and we have Irish Road Bowling.
For the first time this year we're doing Irish road bowling, and this is something that's been practiced in Ireland 300 years now, Julia.

Throwing a 28 ounce steel ball about the size of a tennis ball, and we'll have four teams of three individuals who go down the parade route; the start line and the finish line--whoever gets to the finish line with the least amount of roles wins three Guinness jerseys (chuckles) Yeah!

Julia Meek: You are really expanding operations--parking lot, kitchen annex, street itself for this occasion. Is your whole act streamlined and running smoothly, would you say? Ready to run?

Tony Henry: I think so. I think everything, uh we have Dance Collective that's also going to come in to do some Celtic dances for us.

Julia Meek: You'll have a whole Ceili Dance going on?

Tony Henry: Yeah, yeah. We also have the Mighty McGuiggans coming to entertain us then following that band, which is quite dynamic. We have another band coming in, Ireland Rocks. And Abigail, one of my former managers is going to be lead singing in that and then we finish the night off with a DJ.

Julia Meek: And the whole thing begins the night before St. Patrick's Day with the Ragtag Bunch and they're a marauding bunch of minstrels, So...

Tony Henry: Oh my God, are they ever! They sang for us last year, and I had to bring them back! In fact, Julia, I think you were instrumental and suggesting I bring them in and they are wonderful!

Julia Meek: Seriously, Tony, you're doing so well on every angle here with this celebration.

Now in the meantime, and well, juxtapositioned with all of these wonderful celebrations you do have there at the pub, you spend a good deal of time in your other field of expertise and that's social working and networking the downtown connections that are so dear to you.

How does all of this dovetail together, would you say, In your philosophy and what makes it important for you to be here in Fort Wayne?

Tony Henry: Well, I think it's important for me to also have a footprint in the community, and often having that, my engaging these boards that I serve on, I can come back to my pub and basically share with my patrons what these charity organizations are doing.

For example, like Miss Virginia's is a food pantry, and just three weeks ago we had a Chili Cook off. The patrons brought in chili and it was a fundraiser for Miss Virginia's, and they brought in canned food.

And so as a publican, as an owner of a pub, since I am the son of a social worker and had been a social work for years it's important for me to mirror to my patrons, you know what's going on in our community, and they stand up when we put the call out for social justice, social action, we get our patrons to, you know, to respond and step up and serve, serve the community.

Julia Meek: Bottom line, could it be that simple to put it out there, say what is needed and they will come? Do you? Are you continually encouraged with that?

Tony Henry: Yes, yes! It's unbelievable, Julia, what the patrons over and over and over...I see it, even the SPCA, Humana.

We have a fund in there and people just drop money and all the time for Humana, animal shelters and the food pantries. The Philharmonic, a lot of the folks are concerned about the Philharmonic in the music field, and what are we going to do about this?

The pub is a great place for public discourse and also social action.

Julia Meek: And a word on being a publican, your role as publican, which it's delightful that you embrace that rather old fashioned concept as wonderfully as you do.

What do you feel your mission is, on the side perhaps as you go about your publican business, just being part of the communication that goes with being a publican in a city like Fort Wayne?

Tony Henry: I think it's important, you know, for me to lead folks into looking at issues that are important in our community and our world.

We get the newspaper daily, I find people studying, reading a lot in our pub, watching good TV of the news. There's a lot of public discourse that goes on in our pub, drinking a good stout or good IPA.

Julia Meek: Ancient tradition and brought right into the 21st century, still relevant.

Tony Henry: Yes, yes.

Julia Meek: And Tony, if we do look back at this journey, this adventure, including all of the hard work and labors of love, what would you say the main key to your success has been?

Tony Henry: Stressing to my servers, my bartenders, the importance of hospitality. I've always had this conviction that the pub was really the "third place." With the first place being, of course, our home, our family, the homes we're coming from.

The second place would be a place of worship, a synagogue, or mosque or a church. And the third place is the pub, great ideas and experiences happen in pubs.

And I feel it's very, very important that when people come into a pub, it's more than just about bellying up to the bar for a beer, it's having dialogue, engaging conversation, a good drink, and hopefully, when that person leaves, they have felt somewhat renewed and had an experience that they can share with others.

The Deer Park is a place to bring your dear for one damn good beer.

Julia Meek: (chuckles) A good combination for being around and being on top of things in 25 years. That's great, Tony. Now, I am curious, did you ever wonder if you were on the right track with this enterprise?

And honestly, 25 years ago, could you have dreamed that we would be sitting here right now talking about this silver celebration coming up?

Tony Henry: No, Julia, I think I opened up my conversation with you with saying this being mystical. It's a mystical experience for me.

When I look back 25 years when I took the reins of that little pub and what it's become now, it's been a wonderful journey. And it's been so impactful. I've had 65 employees that have worked for me over these 25 years.

And every one of them I know can look back and say it was fun, and it was healthy and wholesome.

Julia Meek: And it's obvious that you love life. Tony. You don't mind working as hard as you do to make a big difference in people's lives. So last question, what do you want everyone to know about what they and this great community that we all share mean to you?

Tony Henry: There have been so many colorful people that have come into my pub, like Jacob Leinenkugel, he's the founder of a great Leinenkugel beer, great athletes, artists, poets.

They have all given me and my life color, have been very energizing for me, and it's really helped me push forward. And that's why I feel in some ways that I'd like to return their goodness. And I try to do that by putting on wonderful events that will be memorable for folks.

So cheers to all of you, my dears, and Sláinte!

Julia Meek: Tony Henry is owner and publican of Deer Park Irish Pub. Thank you so much for sharing your story sure 'n tis a fine one, Tony. Many blessings, celebrate on.

Tony Henry: Peace, Julia and thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.