James C. Koliha (Baltimore Sun / April 16, 2012)

James C. Koliha, a retired CSX executive who later became an owner of a landmark Towson tavern, died Saturday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at the Maples of Towson, an assisted-living facility.

He was 86.

The son of a Swift & Co. executive and a homemaker, Mr. Koliha was born in Cleveland and raised in Brecksville, Ohio, where he graduated from Brecksville High School in 1943.

He enlisted in the Navy that year and served on Guam and Tinian as a carpenter's mate in the Seabees. Discharged in 1946, he earned a bachelor's degree from Bowling Green University in 1950.

Mr. Koliha began his nearly four-decade railroad career in 1950 in the purchasing department of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in Cleveland.

He later entered sales in the railroad's coal department and then joined its fresh food and vegetables marketing division. When the C&O and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad merged in 1963, he was transferred to Baltimore.

"Jim was a very classy fellow in the sales and marketing department. He had an aura. He was just a first-class salesperson and was always nicely dressed and made a great appearance," said E. Ray Lichty, a retired CSX vice president.

"He was very knowledgeable about the railroad business and knew railroaders all across the country. He was highly regarded," said Mr. Lichty.

When the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 deregulated the industry that had formerly been governed by the Interstate Commerce Commission, Mr. Koliha easily made the transition, according to Mr. Lichty.

"It was a whole new world, and Jim was able to make the change while some couldn't. Jim just wasn't a salesman, he was smart, and that's why he could make the transition," said Mr. Lichty. "He was extremely good at what he did and was just top-notch."

He retired from CSX in 1985.

In his retirement, Mr. Koliha and his wife, the former Patricia Ann Egan, whom he married in 1951, spent winters in Longboat Key, Fla., where they became close friends of Orioles broadcaster Chuck Thompson and his wife, Betty. The two couples traveled together around the world and attended many Orioles events together, family members said.

Mr. Koliha returned to work in 1992 when he and a daughter, Kathy Harden, who lives in Towson, were among several partners who purchased Souris' Saloon, a Towson tavern that had been pouring beer and drinks since 1936 at York Road and Allegheny Avenue.

The original owners, Christopher Souris and Loretta Areti, who was known to generations of drinkers as "Mama Souris," had converted their candy store and soda fountain into a bar, which family members continued to operate until they sold it to the partnership.

While preserving much of the tavern's ambience, the new owners added more food offerings.

"He had never set foot in the place until he bought it," said another daughter, Mary Beth Protzman of Sparks. "People would come in and say they had their first drink there, and he'd say, 'I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard that story.'"

Mr. Koliha brought his business expertise to the operation. An accomplished woodworker, he also oversaw the renovation of the premises.

In 2002, Mr. Koliha and Ms. Harden bought out the other partners.

"When we originally got involved with Souris', he had no restaurant experience. He had worked for the railroad. I had been in restaurants since college. He ran the back of the house. He was very intelligent and picked up things quickly," said Ms. Harden.

"I learned a lot from my father. He was firm but fair, and taught me that business was separate from family. I was very fortunate to have worked with him, and he supported my dream and was generous in backing my venture," she said.

Mr. Koliha enjoyed sitting in a booth and sipping an occasional draft beer while speaking with customers.

"He was very social and became good friends with many of our customers," said Ms. Harden. "He'd come in with my mother and Betty and Chuck Thompson for dinner."

He continued directing the restaurant's financial operation until stepping down in 2006.

Former residents of Riderwood's Village Green neighborhood, he and his wife later lived in Mays Chapel before moving to Mercy Ridge retirement community, where they resided for three years. He moved into the Maples last summer.

An avid golfer, Mr. Koliha enjoyed playing at Pine Ridge Golf Course and had been president of the Pine Ridge Golf Association. He also liked building furniture and working on projects around his home.

He also had been an active member of Retired Administrators of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.

In addition to his wife and two daughters, Mr. Koliha is survived by five grandsons.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com