Jancy Rebecca Lister, former social worker who used social skills as a popular Baltimore bartender, dies

Jancy Rebecca Lister, who trained as a social worker but changed careers and became a well-regarded Charles Street bartender, died of complications of a stroke April 21 at Union Memorial Hospital. The Mount Vernon resident was 66.

Born in Lucedale, Miss., she was the daughter of Melvin Lister, a career noncomissioned Army officer, and his wife, Irma McInnis, a homemaker.

As a child she moved often as her father was assigned to different military posts. She spent her teen years in Aberdeen and was a 1969 graduate of Aberdeen High School.

“Right after her graduation, my father and I took her to the bus stop and she headed for Baltimore, where she sublet an apartment,” said her brother, Hardy Lister of Sterling, Va. “She won a scholarship to Morgan State [University] and studied social work, with an emphasis on the civil rights movement.

“Here she was, a white woman from the depths of Mississippi at an historically black school,” he said. “She loved Morgan State and the whole environment.”

“She was 17 and knew no one in Baltimore,” said her sister, Mary Ann Lister-Davis of Lucedale. “She got a job and then got her scholarship. She was independent and resourceful. She was also determined.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, she joined the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and worked there several years. She became frustrated, though, because she saw such poverty and could not resolve the social issues she witnessed

“She loved people of all races, colors, backgrounds and creeds,” said her brother.

She adopted Baltimore as her home and lived for many years on Calvert Street in Mount Vernon. She also became a self-taught upholsterer — taking after her mother, who was a skilled seamstress.

Family members said she gave up thoughts of being a social worker — although she retained an interest in social causes. She applied for work at restaurants near her home and found a job at the old Washington Place Grille in the Park Plaza building in the 1980s.

“The grille was a place where local celebrities gathered and Jancy knew them all,” said a friend, Luffy Williams. “It had a regular clientele and Jancy was a natural fit there.”

Friends said that when she was tending the bar she adhered to the rules.

“When someone was drinking heavily and asked for one more, she would just say ‘no,’ ” said Ms. Williams.

Jack Elsby, a co-owner of the old Brass Elephant, a nearby restaurant also on Charles Street, recalled her tenure at the grille.

“I recruited her to my place,” he said of his restuarant, which had a marble-clad bar on its second floor. “I found her fascinating. She was like an actress who played the part of a bartender. Her performance was electric. She was colorful and had an encyclopedic ability to recall stories about her customers.

“I thought of her as a dazzling Lucy Ricardo, with her red hair and lipstick,” he said. “There aren’t enough people in the hospitality industry like Jancy. She could be exasperating, but she brought style and color.”

Sascha Wolhandler, who owned a catering business and a restaurant, employed Ms. Lister for nearly 11 years.

“Jancy was full of life. [She] had a marvelous sense of spirit and the ability to tell a tale,” Ms. Wolhandler said. “She was an excellent bartender who could extract a bit of her patrons’ lives in the way she reached out to them. She was a gifted raconteur and ... set the groundwork for people to open up to her.”

Curt Decker, of Mount Vernon, hired Ms. Lister to bartend and serve at his social events.

“Jancy was the kind of unique person that Mount Vernon engenders. She was an incredibly social person who engaged well with my guests. She became part of the party and not a server,” Mr. Decker said, adding: “She also did quite a bit of upholstery work for me too.”

Nancy Longo, owner of Pierpoint on Aliceanna Street, recalled her long association with Ms. Lister, and desribed her as a “kind soul.”

“Jancy was a thoughtful person. She had a huge heart and a lot of empathy for her customers,” Ms. Longo said. “She was a talented, meticulous worker. She was an old-school bartender and required large amounts of ice to ensure her drinks were perfect — her cocktail shaker would freeze over outside.”

She said Ms. Lister enjoyed talking with guests and would pick up a small upholstery job or two, “or maybe make a pair of curtains.”

Tony Norris, co-owner of Bertha’s Restaurant and Bar in Fells Point, said: “Jancy was a fixture. She seemed to know everybody. She was a bigger-than-life person. She could keep a croud entertained. She also had many friends in Baltimore’s beatnik arts scene. “

A memorial gathering will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Bertha’s, 734 South Broadway.

In addition to her brother and sister, survivors include two other brothers, Melvin Lister Jr. and Joe Lister; and another sister, Dorcas McLeod, all of Lucedale. Other survivors include nieces and nephews.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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