John K. Lea, former owner of Columbia’s revered J.K.’s Pub. died of natural causes at his home in Vantage House in Columbia on Dec. 11. He was 85.
Mr. Lea, known for his sense of humor, larger-than-life persona and love for his community, was born in Bucyrus, Ohio, to Arch and Alice Lea and was one of three boys.
Mr. Lea earned his bachelor’s degree in communications at the Miami University of Ohio, according to his wife, the former Claire Crompton.
In 1960, he moved to California, where he met Mrs. Lea and married her that year. They had their son, Tim, in 1963 and soon after, they moved back to Ohio, where Mr. Lea received his master’s in British theater and history from Miami University. After having their second son, Doug, in 1965 during a short stint in Florida, they moved to Maryland, where Mr. Lea finished a doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, College Park, while teaching in the speech and drama department. Mr. Lea would teach at the university for 15 years.
In August 1968, Mrs. Lea said, their family became “Columbia pioneers,” becoming one of the around 800 residents who lived in the Howard County town. They quickly became an integral part of the community.
In 1971, Mr. Lea suggested having a baseball game on the Fourth of July. The idea grew when the Leas and a group of friends decided that the Columbia neighborhood of Longfellow should have its own parade, Mrs. Lea said — “The Longfellow Friends of the Traditional Fourth.”
“This just came from foolishness,” she said, but the Longfellow Parade soon became a hit and is now one the oldest continuing parades in Howard County, she said.
As a couple, the Leas were known for being “really Columbia,” according to Jean Moon, 75, a former manager of Patuxent Publishing.
“They were just infectious and loved,” said Pat Kennedy, 85, a former president of the Columbia Association.
In Mr. Lea’s spare time, he had several interests. He played racquetball and golf, but his true passion was always theater, according to Mrs. Lea.
“He was an exceptional actor,” she said, adding that he acted through high school and college, and directed and wrote local plays for fundraisers when he moved to Columbia years later.
Mr. Long was also a known traveler. He drove cross-country multiple times, visited all 50 states, and traveled around the world to places like New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore. An avid sailor, Mr. Lea loved exploring the Chesapeake Bay. He spent time sailing the British Virgin Islands and once made a round trip on a 30-foot sailboat to Bermuda. At least one of his travels had a profound effect on him and would create a local legacy. During a sabbatical year, the Leas went to Europe, spending most of their time in England, Mrs. Lea said.
“He just really became enamored with the pubs and how they were the living room of the community. And we thought, ‘Gee, that would be a really cool thing for Columbia,’” she said.
In 1978, the Leas opened J.K.’s Pub, an establishment that became an unforgettable fixture in Columbia. Mrs. Lea called it the “Cheers” before “Cheers” — a place where “you would always know somebody.”
“He was the host. I would tease him: ‘You’re an actor now. You have your own stage,’” Mrs. Lea said with a laugh. “… He was really a Renaissance man.”
Mr. Kennedy called Mr. Lea a publican with a booming personality, “a master greeter of anyone who came in.”
“He made you feel so welcome and so at home,” Mr. Kennedy said. He remembered how members of the Columbia Council and school board would congregate at the pub after having meetings across the street.
“It was a most unusual place because people who disagreed with each other would have a few beers and conversation and tell jokes and so on, and they became a really close group,” he said.
The Leas sold the bar in 1994, 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.
It’s impossible to talk about Mr. Lea without mentioning the pub, Mr. Kennedy said.
“When the history of Columbia is written, there’s going to be a chapter on J.K.’s Pub and John Lea because it was that important all the while it was here,” he said.
His passion for the community ran deep, Mrs. Lea said.
“He had 85 years of a really good life, and he loved Columbia,” she said. “And that’s why he wanted to do something for Columbia.”
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 27 at Kahler Hall, 5440 Old Tucker Row, Columbia.
In addition to his wife of 58 years, Mr. Lea is survived by his sons, Tim Lea and Doug Lea, both of Columbia; his brother, Bill Lea of Louisville, K.Y.; four grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and four nieces.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Libby Solomon contributed to this article.