Beloved bartender battles cancer, reflects on career
As a popular bartender for 32 years, Gary Jablonski is a Milwaukee institution. Known as "the Mayor of Van Buren Street," Jablonski could be found four days a week for the last 21 years having a great time waiting tables and tending bar at Victor's, 1230 N. Van Buren St.
Jablonski says his favorite drink to make is a "basic cosmo."
"I am not a creator of cocktails. There are mixologists and there are bartenders and I consider myself a bartender," he says.
While he doesn't follow the trends, he will make anything you tell him to make. "And I might even have a few suggestions. But I'm a rum and Coke kind of guy myself," Jablonski says.
Jablonski, who describes himself as "down-to-earth" and even "old school," keeps things modest in order to have the life he wants. "I live a fast life. Hang out at gay bars, travel a lot, five or six vacations a year. I don't have a fancy car. Only seven years ago I started saving for retirement, got a CD," he says.
Jablonski only recently learned how to use a computer, and got a Facebook account. He doesn't text. "You wanna talk to me? Call me, better yet stop by, and let's talk," he says.
Victor Jones, Jr., Jablonski's boss at Victor's, jokingly gave him the name "schmooze" because of his ability to easily interact with people.
"He had at least 10 friends he addressed at the bar each day. I never met a guy who would cultivate so many friends," says Jones, who attempted to recruit Jablonski for a year before he finally agreed to work at Victor's.
Two months ago, Jablonski was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
A fixture in the Milwaukee bar and restaurant scene, Jablonski does not work anymore. "It's not fair to my employers," says Jablonski. "Scheduling me for shifts and me not being able to make it. Besides, I'm blessed to be able to fill my days with family and friends now."
On Sunday, May 22, friends held a party for Jablonski at Victor's. The "It's All About Gary 50th Birthday and Fundraiser" drew close to 800 attendees.
"It was the happiest day of my life," says Jablonski, whose birthday is actually in October.
Jablonski says his original doctors gave him three to six months to live, but his new doctor, Douglas Evans at Froedtert, doesn't talk time frame. Evans, the chair of the surgery department at Froedtert and the Medical College, is the most sought-after doctor for people with pancreatic cancer in the country, according to Jablonski.
Recently, Jablonski underwent an operation to remove the cancer and reroute his intestines. He now goes to chemo, three weeks on, one week off. His good friend, Chris Zidanic, attends chemo with him.
"I know he must have times when he is angry and quite sad, but he still cracks jokes with the nurses and smiles and laughs with us," says Zidanic.
Zidanic met Jablonski while working with him at Victor's 20 years ago. Jablonski was a bridesmaid in her wedding. Zidanic reminisces about barhopping bus trips to Chicago that Jablonski would organize.
"He also would change his outfits from one bar to the next and each outfit was more fabulous than the one before," says Zidanic.
Jablonski grew up on 13th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, graduated from Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School and later moved to Greendale. He now lives near Highway 100 in West Allis in a one bedroom apartment with his cat.
Jablonski started working at small South Side corner bars near where he grew up, but he says he never intended to be a bartender. He got his start one day while drinking at a new establishment in the neighborhood and saw that one of the co-owners was working drunk.
"He was giving away the bar, he was so bombed," Jablonski says. "So I called up this guy's partner, who told me to take over until he got there."
A recovering alcoholic, Jablonski has been sober for seven years, and is very proud of this accomplishment. After rehab, Jablonski spent three months in a halfway house and says that many of his friends in Alcoholics Anonymous didn't understand how he could bartend after going through what he did.
"People said I shouldn't go back to Victor's, but with all my friends there, it was one place I had to go back to," he says. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
My first encounter with him is that he overcharged me for my drinks . I know of him too bad about the cancer however
mkegirl | June 21, 2011 at 11:15 a.m. (report)
i am a doctor, and jane is correct; one of the biggest risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer is smoking or exposure to second hand smoke. pancreatic cancer is not hereditary, so the fact that his father also has cancer has no bearing on this diagnosis. regardless, i wish gary the best, and hope he continues to feel well.
Jane, it would be more helpful if you know the history...every think that maybe cancer runs in his family. Gary, great story. love ya
Gary has been a TRUE GEM for Victor's all of these years.....hopefully the Jone's family truly "appreciates" what a sincere FRIEND, and spokesperson Gary has been for them, the city of Milwaukee, and for the Gay community!! Best Wishes for a FULL, and steady "RECOVERY" to you:)
Sounds like a great guy. I am so sorry for his diagnosis. My brother spent the last 6 months of his life after a cancer diagnosis doing the same thing. Great attitude. And to the person that commented that this is from second hand smoke - please - are you a doctor or just a smoking nazi?
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