"Last Call at Egan's" A 40th anniversary APR encore presentation
The Saint Louis Cardinals won baseball’s world series in 1982. You might say listeners of in-depth journalism got a home run of their own that year because that’s when Alabama Public Radio first went on the air. The APR news team is observing our fortieth anniversary by re-airing some of our best stories. This one is from last year. APR student intern Libby Foster witnessed the end of a tradition near the Tuscaloosa campus of the University of Alabama.
Thick smoke. Dim lights. Loud music. Welcome to Egan’s. That’s how the sign read over the iconic Tuscaloosa bar.
For 42 years, Egan’s kept the promises spelled out in white letters. The University Boulevard establishment sat proudly on the strip as Tuscaloosa changed around it.
Bob Baker called himself a loyal Egan’s customer. He became a fan over a decade ago.
“It was a place that was inclusive," he said. "In a city so entrenched in Greek culture, and also plenty of transient students who spend four years here and then move away somewhere, it was a place where people who decided to stick around in Tuscaloosa could plant their roots and have a community of folks who cared and a place to drink.”
Bo Hicks runs Druid City Brewery in Tuscaloosa. Twenty years ago, he was pouring other brands of beer as a bartender at Egan’s. He was a regular before that, too.
“It wasn’t catering just to the Greek element," he said. "It wasn’t catering just to law students. It was sort of a hodge podge, and I think that that’s important because you can learn so much from people that don’t have the same background as you. It could be construction workers, English professors and shoegaze band fans all sort of coexisting in the same place. So, I think I would describe it as an eclectic place that really led to a lot of connections that have helped me through my life and taught me a lot.”
While Bo Hicks and Bob Baker worked and drank at Egan’s, Mike McWhirter ran the place. He’s owned Egan’s since 2018.
“It’s almost been an institution. This has been, for 42 years, a lot of people’s living room," he said. "I mean, they come down here, they know everybody, they are relaxed, listening to live music, having a cold beer. It’s been a unique experience.”
It was McWhirter who decided to sell the bar to move closer to his family in Texas.
Live and original music was a big part of the Egan’s experience. Along with being a customer and bartender, Hicks was a member of local bands that came calling to Egan’s over the years.
“We had the Alabama Shakes play under the fake name Boys Room, and so once word got out and people saw Brittany, it just became a mob scene and it was just so insane," he said. "And then there’s a million other small things that added up to beautiful relationships that I’ve had. And so, it taught a lot of people, like, 'Hey maybe there is a way that I can try my idea here. Maybe there is a way that I can do something different and something interesting.' I think it taught me to be a little more fluid, be a little more funky, have a little more fun.”
Local drummer Craig Pickering is commonly known as “Sweet Dog” at Egan’s. He’s been playing at the bar since 1996.
“The most memorable show I had was in ‘99 with the Dexateens. We tore the ceiling out, getting on people’s shoulders and forgetting about the ceiling panels being too low and the guitar necks going through them," he said. "We had a great time here. It’s a great place to play because you’re level with the crowd, and when you have to go to the bathroom you have to walk through the band. It’s usually the bass player twisting his neck for somebody to get through. It's just a good, down-home place to play.”
Egan’s regulars gathered for the last call before Egan’s closed down for good late last month. Some got sentimental about it. Pam and Darryl Dunlap met at Egan’s over 40 years ago.
“This is where we met in 1979. My best friend was the bartender here and I worked here serving beers and worked for beers. So, he came in one night and the rest is history. We’ve been together since.”
Blake Bullman was an Egan’s regular. He said Egan’s was special to Tuscaloosa.
“There’s certain places in America’s small towns that people navigate to," he said. "People meet, people get married, probably divorced, or, fights, or whatever. There’s always going to be that one thing that keeps us all bonded, and Egan’s bar was one of the last few things on the strip in Tuscaloosa that’s lasted.”
All of the Egan’s regulars admitted that change is inevitable, even for the oldest bar in town. Hicks said Tuscaloosa and its bar scene are evolving quickly.
“I think, especially with the increase in enrollment at the University, there’s a lot more of an undergrad community, which sort of can be a little detrimental to locals and people that live here," he said. "Everything’s more crowded, it’s harder to get around. So I think it is, but once again, change is only natural.”
Egan’s itself changed when McWhirter took ownership of the bar three years ago. Off the record, people grumbled over the changes to Egan’s décor as well as the prices people were charged at the bar. Even so, McWhirter was grateful for the regulars that stuck by him while he was the owner.
“There are some people that didn’t like the changes that we made. There were a lot of people that did, and the fact that a very large majority continued to support us and continued to believe in what we were doing is going to be special for me," he said. "This is not a customer-oriented business. These people that have supported me for the last three years, they’re my friends.”
Egan’s regulars said they’re looking for a new place to call their second home. Hicks hopes the community can embrace another space the same way long term Tuscaloosans adopted Egan’s.
“I hope that there’s something that does call on those things that I mentioned earlier about really being progressive and supportive of the arts, but the community’s going to dictate that," he said. "All we can hope for is that younger people that have these ideas will kind of make their own place and find a place that they feel the same reverence that I felt when I was at Egan’s.”
Egan’s officially closed on the first day of August. Chris Coleman and Mac Maddox now own the space, which is called Unique. It opens today.
Editor's note— APR appreciates the production assistance of newsroom intern Will McLelland.