Metro-East Living

Joanie the bartender keeps customers happy — and honest — for 45 years

Joanie Clark is an institution at Ron’s Lounge in Lebanon.

The 74-year-old Mascoutah woman has been working as a bartender for 45 years, serving drinks, grilling burgers, keeping the peace and looking after customers as if they were her own kids.

“I always tell her she needs to write a book and change the names to protect the innocent,” said her daughter, Kaylyn Frerking, 46, of Mascoutah. “She’d make millions.”

But that’s not Joanie’s style.

“When you tend bar, you keep your mouth shut,” she said, her wispy gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. “You never snitch on people. That will get you in trouble.”

Joanie works every day, including Sundays mornings, when she helps bar owners Ron and Joan Christ cook breakfast for members of the Lebanon Gun Club and other regulars.

They’re amazed by her energy and dedication. “Sick days” aren’t in her vocabulary.

“I’ve never seen a bar stool behind the bar, and I’ve never seen her come out from behind the bar and sit down,” said Bill Suydam, 61, gun club president. “She’s always on her feet.”

Joanie has a simple explanation for the habit.

“If you sit down, you get tired,” she said. “You don’t feel like getting back up.”

Joanie keeps busy, but she takes time to chat with customers, some third generation, as well as the men who deliver beer and wine for distributors.

“She writes a personal note on all their invoices,” said Joan, 76, who lives on a horse farm between Lebanon and Trenton. “It will say, ‘Let’s just smile through it,’ or “Is this snow ever going to end?’ or ‘Have a nice day!’”

“She always has a smile on her face,” said customer Dennis Fix, 67, of O’Fallon.

But “friendly” doesn’t mean “pushover.”

Joanie isn’t afraid to ask someone to leave the bar if he is getting rowdy, even though she barely stands 5-foot-2 in her white Reeboks.

Bill claims he saw Joanie chasing a man down the sidewalk decades ago after the man failed to pay for a 35-cent beer. She’s a little gentler with regulars.

“You can walk in, and she’ll say, ‘You forgot to pay your bill two weeks ago,’” said Julia Parker, 64, of Lebanon, a retired schoolteacher. “She’s like a bulldog protecting the place.”

The Christs opened Ron’s Lounge in 1967. They moved to their current location in an historic storefront at 228 W. St. Louis St. three years later on St. Patrick’s Day.

Joanie was a single mother of two young daughters in 1970, when she became Ron’s cleaning lady through her brother, Sy Dickhaut, a bartender.

“We’d play on a blanket while she worked,” said Kaylyn, whose sister, Tina Ahlberg, lives in Iowa.

A few months later, Joan asked Joanie if she would be willing to tend bar and let Joan clean the place.

“She said, ‘I’ve never bartended in my life. I would not know how to do that,’” Joan recalls. “And I said, ‘You’ll learn fast.’ So we switched jobs, and neither of us looked back.”

Kaylyn worked alongside her mother at Ron’s from 1993 to 2006. She learned even more about Joanie’s influence when Kaylyn lived in Florida.

“We walked into a restaurant in Destin, and a lady hollered, ‘Hey Joanie!’ and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Kaylyn said. “I asked her who they were, and she said, ‘I don’t know their names, but he drinks Bud Light and she drinks scotch and soda.’”

Today, Joanie serves as Ron’s manager, but she has no set schedule. She usually works all day and often returns later in the evening to check on things.

Joanie takes off only to visit her daughter in Iowa, spend time with her five grandsons or see the band Alabama. She has driven all over the country for concerts and has become friends with the lead singer, Randy Owen.

“He’s great,” she said, wearing one of her many Alabama sweatshirts.

A relatively new customer is Cheryl Ahlfield, who moved to Lebanon eight years ago with husband Jerry. They stopped by Ron’s and Joanie made them feel right at home.

Today, Cheryl can’t go long without a “Joanie fix.”

“She’s so good to me,” said Cheryl, 51. “She brings me cookies. If I come in here, and I don’t have any money, she’ll buy me a couple of drinks. If I don’t have an onion at home, I’ll come up here, and she’ll give me one.

“And she makes the best burgers in town. They call them ‘Joanie burgers.’”

Last Sunday, Cheryl gave Joanie a potful of yellow tulips for her 45th anniversary at Ron’s and her 75th birthday on March 22 and “just because I love her.”

That prompted a round of congratulations from others eating eggs, sausage and hash browns at the bar.

“She’s very good at her job,” said Lebanon Township Commissioner Tony Fritz, 74. “She works hard and takes care of people. She’s devoted to her job, big time.”

Joanie drinks only coffee, Pepsi and bottled water, and she “can’t stand the smell of whiskey.” But that’s a minor disadvantage to working at Ron’s.

“I like to tend bar,” she said. “I like to cook, and I like to talk to people. I have wonderful people who come here. They make me feel like I’m at home.”