- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - After Fote Backy’s wife, Nada, died in 1991, he soon realized he could not just sit around home and watch television.

So Backy began to spend a lot more time at the Champaign bar that he has owned since 1975 - the Brass Rail.

Now 84, he goes seven days a week to the downtown tavern at University Avenue and Walnut Street.

His routine:

“I get in around 8:30 in the morning, get things set up and leave around 11 to go the bank. I do that every day but Sunday.

“I’ll come back at 1:30 at night and stay here with the janitor until he gets done and I check out my book work. I had offered him the key but he didn’t want it. I go to bed around 4 in the morning and get up at 7.”

He sleeps only three hours a night?

“I take a little nap in the afternoon. Sometimes for an hour and sometimes it’s two hours. It seems like the older I get the less sleep I need.”

Backy bought the saloon, the oldest in Champaign, when he was working as a firefighter for the University of Illinois Fire Department.

Then, he didn’t go much to the bar, letting Nada run it.

After he retired in 1982 from the university, he and his wife took turns working at the tavern. “She worked days and I worked nights. A brother-in-law helped out too.”

Backy doesn’t have any hobbies. “Work has been my hobby,” he said.

He doesn’t take vacations. He owns a second home along Lake Sara, an 800-acre recreational lake west of Effingham. But over the 23 years since his wife died he’s been there only a few times.

His children, grandchildren and now great-grandkids actually spend more time there than he.

He’s just not that interested in travel anymore.

“I traveled all over the United States when I was younger, and when I was in the Navy I traveled all over the world,” he said.

During his “three years, nine months and 27 days” in the military he didn’t see action but he saw Korea and Vietnam “when the French were there.” He was usually out at sea - at one time between Formosa and mainland China.

So now he travels every day the relatively short distance, roughly 3 miles, from his home in the Kenwood addition of Champaign to the Rail, which is open 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday.

He works the early-morning shift because it’s less busy. The people who come in then tend to head for the four slot machines in back.

But the octogenarian remains on call. For example, the other evening he went in to help out because his bartender was swamped.

What keeps him going?

“I enjoy it here. I enjoy the young people who come in,” he said.

Besides, he’s used to a tavern atmosphere. He’d been hanging at the Brass Rail since 1944.

“I knew the man who owned it then, Ted Anthony. I did things for him when I was younger. After he passed it was sold to the Kellys.”

The Kellys knew Backy’s father, who helped them get started with the tavern. When the Kelly brothers were ready to sell they called Fote. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

He had done a lot of work at and tended bar at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Champaign.

“I said, ‘You know, if I worked as hard for myself as I do for somebody else I’d be better off.’”

So he took up the Kellys on their offer.

“Downtown was nothing then - just here and the Esquire,” he remembered of the mid-‘70s.

He’s pleased with all the changes and new businesses he’s seen. But he can’t say he likes them.

“It reminds me of Old Town in Chicago,” said Backy, who when younger lived and worked for a year in the Windy City. “It boomed for four or five years and the rowdies moved in and killed it. After that things slowed down.”

He’s never had a problem with rowdies at the Rail over the nearly four decades he’s owned it, though sometimes his place is so packed he can barely walk through the crowd. And, the bar has been broken into only twice.

He no longer has the first dollar bill he took in at the Rail. Someone stole it in one of the burglaries.

And Backy doesn’t remember the first drink he served at his tavern - or any other he’s worked. He figures it had to be a beer. People of his generation drink mainly beer. He’s noticed today’s younger crowd likes the hard stuff.

He himself doesn’t drink anymore.

“I got diabetes and they told me it wasn’t the best thing for it. I thought, ‘Well, no use paying the doctor and not doing what he tells me.’ “

He also quit smoking after a heart attack, in 2000.

“I had to go to the hospital for about three days and then I was back here,” he remembered as he sipped black coffee behind the Rail’s Formica bar, installed in 1963, after a fire.

He hasn’t had any major health problems since his hospitalization 14 years ago.

“They put a stent in when I had the heart attack and that’s been the end of it.”

He said he doesn’t mind aging.

“I think life gets better the older I get,” he said. “Like I said, I enjoy every day. I have no regrets being on this Earth. I’m looking forward to the next 10 years.”


Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/1rhXy6D


Information from: The News-Gazette, https://www.news-gazette.com

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