Howard B. Gerber, who got lucky one day at Pimlico Race Course when a horse he had bet on came galloping home and earned him enough money to purchase a Fells Point watering hole that dated to 1775, died July 6 of a stroke at his Canton home. He was 75.
“Howard was one of the guys who invented the Fells Point that we now like to reminisce about. It was a different place then. There were no parking meters and you could park the car and then go from place to place. And when you reminisce about those days, you harken back to Howard,” said Jim Burger, a photographer and writer who lives in Remington.
“Back in the 1970s, Fells Point was like a loose confederation, and he was one of those pioneering bar owners like Chuck Doering, who had John Stevens, and “Turkey” Joe Trabert, who had Turkey Joe’s on South Broadway, ” Mr. Burger said. “The Horse You Came In On was a kind of urban cowboy bar without the mechanical bull, and it drew a crowd that liked country music. It had a jukebox, but no one dared play a Rolling Stones song.”
Stephen A. Geppi, owner and publisher of Baltimore magazine, has been a close friend of Mr. Gerber’s for more than 30 years.
“I know that people always say nice things about a person after they die, but Howard was one of the kindest human beings you’d ever want to meet. I loved him,” said Mr. Geppi, a Reisterstown resident. “I can’t say enough good things about him. If you looked up the word ‘kind’ in the dictionary, you’d see Howard’s picture.”
Howard Goldstein, of Canton, is another longtime friend of more than 40 years, who regularly went to dinner with Mr. Gerber.
“We were best friends and he was like a brother to me. We spoke every day,” Mr. Goldstein said. “And when you walked into his place, you felt good, because it was like one big family. He’d stay in touch with people who had worked for him years ago.”
Howard Bennet Gerber, son of Dr. Morris J. Gerber, a pediatrician, and his wife, Frances A. Gerber, an administrator with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
He was a 1962 graduate of Susquehanna High School and began his college studies at Penn State.
“He played football for Joe Paterno but said he mostly sat on the bench,” Mr. Goldstein said. He then dropped out of college and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
“This was in the late 1960s and he saw active duty in Vietnam,” Mr. Goldstein said.
After being discharged from the Marines, Mr. Gerber earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in business in 1971 from Villanova University.
He came to Baltimore in the 1960s and worked at the old Chanticleer, the Tom Foolery in Mount Vernon and at the No Fish Today on Eutaw Street.
In 1972, Mr. Gerber purchased a Colonial-era building on Thames Street that had been home to a bar since 1775.
During its long and colorful history, it was rumored to be the spot where Edgar Allan Poe had his last drink, and a sign in the bar, “Poe’s Last Stop,” commemorates the event. The poet died at Washington Medical College several days later on Oct. 3, 1849.
At the time that Mr. Gerber was interested in purchasing the bar it was known as Al and Ann’s, a neighborhood joint, that “made more money selling cigarettes than drinks,” Mr. Gerber told The Baltimore Sun in a 2006 interview.
“It was while he was working at No Fish Today that he wanted to own a bar,” said his niece, Laura Beth Carter of Kent Island. “So, he borrowed $5,000 from his mother and sister, and went to Pimlico, put it on a horse that won, and doubled his money. The bar got its name the Horse You Came In On because he came in on the money.”
When the bar opened Aug. 7, 1972, “that’s when a silver-haired dude in a black hat rode a horse through the front door and up to the bar. And nobody noticed,” according to the 2006 Sun article.
Mr. Gerber created an ambiance of warmth and a respite for drinkers from the travails of the day.
“All of which is in keeping with the nature of the patrons, who are stylish but not slick, educated but not intellectual, and hip but not trend-setting,” wrote a Sun columnist in 1976.
“The one word everyone uses is comfortable,” Mr. Gerber told The Sun in 2006. “The kind of place you didn’t worry about throwing your cigarette butts on the floor. It’s nonthreatening in here. It’s not a meat market. OK. Maybe it is.”
While the place was known for serving oceans of beer to customers, Mr. Gerber preferred wine.
“He liked to drink pinot grigio,” Mr. Goldstein said.
“Because he was the target of so many nuisance lawsuits, he and his sister, Jeanne Gerber, both went to law school,” Ms. Carter said. “The proceeds of the bar put him through the University of Baltimore Law School from which he graduated in 1980 and became a defense attorney.”
Mr. Gerber established a solo law practice in the Belvedere Hotel and had not retired at his death.
“My time is now spent in the courtroom,” he told the Sun in 2007. “I don’t get the bad guys. I don’t do high-profile cases — maybe a little marijuana possession or assault. I fight for my clients.”
Mr. Gerber told The Sun in 2006 that selling The Horse was “the toughest thing I’ve ever done. ... I don’t want to be buried here. I’ve never married, and part of the reason, I think, is because I’m married to this place.”
It was sold at auction to Eric M. Mathias and his business partner, John Korologos, who have owned and operated the bar for the past 14 years.
“He still regularly came in. He’d have a glass of wine and check on me,” said Mr. Mathias, a Canton resident. “He was so special and was really good to me, and always had encouraging things to say. He still is part of our company.”
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He added: “This is his legacy. It’s a quirky place and just not another cookie-cutter bar and is known on a national level. He served our city well.”
John C. Liberatore got to know Mr. Gerber when he was a busboy at Caesar’s Den and later as a server in Da Mimmo in Little Italy. Mr. Liberatore’s, in Timonium, was a frequent dining destination of Mr. Gerber’s.
“He was always nice to busboys and bartenders and he didn’t care if you were the owner or not, he treated everyone with respect,” said Mr. Liberatore, who lives in Perry Hall. “He was always so kind and was always giving compliments. I never saw him lose his temper. He was just a class act.”
Mr. Gerber was a collector of historic weapons and liked driving his two Jaguars.
Monday’s funeral services are private. Plans for a gathering to be held at The Horse are incomplete.