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This Week in Columbia History: Volunteers built Wilde Lake pub into the 'living room of the community'

Joel Penenburgh, who purchased the pub with his wife, Abby, in 1994, is shown that year with two long-time customers, Leslie Matyas , left, and Joe Burch at J.K.’s Pub.
Joel Penenburgh, who purchased the pub with his wife, Abby, in 1994, is shown that year with two long-time customers, Leslie Matyas , left, and Joe Burch at J.K.’s Pub. (Howard County Times file)

In August 1978, The Baltimore Sun reported that Columbia residents got to work. A bank vice president installed the drywall, a police chief ground concrete on the floor and the entire Wilde Lake High School football team lifted the bar top.

J.K.'s Pub, a Columbia staple in Wilde Lake Village Center for more than 20 years, was not only a neighborhood gathering place but the product of a "community effort," said Claire Lea, who owned the pub with her husband, the bar's namesake, John K. Lea.

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"I think that's part of what made it so successful," Lea said. "Everybody felt a part of it."

The Leas and their original co-owners, Edward and Rhea Hamel and Linda and Jim Nedzbala, hired a contractor to renovate the storefront's interior to create the bar. Volunteers saved the owners $40,000 of the $150,000 construction job, said Edward Hamel, who was also a construction company executive, told the Sun.

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"People would stop by and help out," Lea said. "They'd come by and say 'What can I do to help?'"

Doug DuVall, Wilde Lake's football coach, operated a jackhammer, the Sun reported; the Howard County police chief, Robert Mathews, lugged mud in a wheelbarrow. Lea recalled a man named Dick Callis, who chose a wood area above the fireplace, where the pub logo hung, and polished and took care of the wood for years.

"He claimed that as his piece of the pub, and refinished it and continued to take care of it," Lea said. "That was his piece, and he wanted it to be perfect, and it was."

Mary Linden, who later worked as a waitress at the pub, said she helped out doing everything she was able, despite having a detached retina at the time.

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Lea said the pub drew so much community involvement, both during its construction and after, because Columbia's newness encouraged its residents to work harder to put down roots.

"Everybody was kind of in the same boat," Lea said. "We were away from family, away from siblings. It was a whole new experience. I think that's part of why people became so involved in so many things: We literally could make a difference."

Because of being involved in the construction, a large part of the community already had a relationship with the bar before opening day.

"People were in there long before we opened," Lea said. "It wasn't like the secret openings they have now with the paper on the windows and the grand openings. People would stop by and come in and take a look."

Peoples' involvement gave them a sense of ownership and made them "protective," Lea said. She said her husband used to joke that if the pub wanted to raise the price of beer, "we'd have to take a vote from the customers."

Lea described J.K.'s Pub as the "living room of the community," inspired by the pubs she and her husband fell in love with in England. In bringing the concept to Columbia, she said, "we felt like we were filling a void."

"We liked that it was a leveler," she said of the pub. "Nobody talked about what they did for a living."

True to Columbia found Jim Rouse's vision, The Mall in Columbia through the years became a community gathering place, hosting traditions including the annual Christmas poinsettia tree and a periodic Ball in the Mall to celebrate Columbia milestones. One year, Rouse arrived at a Halloween masquerade ball at the mall dressed as a clown.

Joe Sherrock, who was a regular customer, told the Sun in 1994 that J.K.'s was a place to meet people of all types, saying: "I sit next to guys, and I don't know what they do, and they don't know what I do. And I'd die for those guys."

That was the same year the Leas put J.K.'s Pub up for sale, when running it became too demanding. It operated for a while under new ownership as the Pub of Wilde Lake and then closed in July 2000.

Lea said J.K.'s Pub was meant to be a friendly place for everyone. The owners made a deliberate effort to make it a place where women could feel comfortable going alone, Lea said. They held two weddings in the pub. Articles in the Sun described young adults newly of age buying their first legal drink at J.K.'s with their parents.

The bar provided jobs for high schoolers, Lea said, as well as "friends of ours who came in and wanted to be a part of it."

On Friday nights, Linden said, "We'd gather around one of the standing bars, and have wonderful conversations and catch up on each other's news. It was a very warm and welcoming place to be."

The loyalty and community spirit, Lea said, was an outgrowth of the weeks in which volunteers helped build J.K.'s into a pub.

"They felt vested in it, because they were a part of it," Lea said, "and they watched it grow."



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