Mention the name “Pokey” to decades of Carroll alumni and the immediate association might likely be one of evenings spent downing seven-ounce shorties and setting the jukebox at the Club 400 on replay to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”
Dan Pokwinski ’79 didn’t get the nickname Pokey through his football teammates or frat house buddies at Carroll. No. It came about much earlier, from a Catholic nun teaching first grade at Holy Cross School in Milwaukee, who could not pronounce Pokwinski, much to the giggles of his schoolmates. One day, she decided from then on he would be called, “Mr. Pokey.”
The name followed him out of Holy Cross to Wauwatosa East and then Carroll, where his own mother would call through the pay phone on the wall at the Beta Pi Epsilon house but wouldn’t ask to speak to her son, Dan. She’d ask for Pokey. He’s obviously embraced it, as evidenced by the animated Gumby and Pokey figurines taking up residence behind the bar at the Club 400. It’s here that Carroll alumni hear the name and think of fond memories and building their social circles in college. It’s here that Dan, Pokey, invested in a place as a young alumnus himself and set his sights on turning it into a “Carroll bar.”
Thirty-six years after taking over the Club 400, though, Pokey is putting the bar up for sale. You read that right, Pioneers. Those of you who helped launch and maintain this as a local Carroll establishment and still visit on occasion might want to catch up with Pokey for one more beverage before he hands over the keys to the right buyer.
He’s taking his time. The right buyer has to appreciate the history of the place and maintain its atmosphere, Pokwinski said. A large display of memorabilia pertaining to Waukesha guitar legend Les Paul adorns much of the wall on the lower floor of the bar, which was originally owned by Paul’s father and brother, George and Ralph Polsfuss, who established Club 400 in 1948.
“It would just crush me if you get some jerk come in here and it becomes a problem for Carroll University or a problem for all the neighbors. I don’t want that. I would never want to leave that on the neighbors or on Carroll,” he said. “It’s got to be somebody that’s committed.”
Committed is what Pokwinski became with the business, which he initially saw as an investment but not necessarily the career that developed after he took it over at age 23, just two years after his graduation from Carroll. Before the Club 400 became “the Club” to Carroll students, it was simply a quiet evening getaway where Pokwinski liked to play a game of Sheepshead and have a few beers with fellow Carroll classmates.
Two years out of Carroll, Pokwinski found that his accounting career was not all he envisioned it might be. A lunch time conversation with his friend and fellow alumnus, Paul Melotik ’79, also an accountant at the time, launched a new vision: to buy the Club 400.
Remembering those early days and that initial conversation, Pokwinski recalled, “We said, ‘Whoa. We could make this into a college bar.’ And, lo and behold,
that’s what happened.”
With no bar experience, the two accountants drew up a plan. They convinced a local bank to provide a loan. With the help of Pokwinski’s brother-in-law, also freshly out of college with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, they bought the Club and then let local Carroll students know this was a place for them to be. The doors opened in 1981 and, with the owners’ existing connections to Carroll, the Club was bustling on that first night “instantly,” Pokwinski said.
“We were just packed. From day one, it became a Carroll bar,” he said.
Melotik would later leave the Club 400 but move on to own other bar establishments, including Flannery’s Bar/Restaurant in Milwaukee and Fire Ridge Golf Course in Grafton, co-owned with another Carroll alumnus, Steve Smith ’79. He also serves as supervisor on the Ozaukee County Board.
“It’s great he stayed there for so long,” Melotik said of his friend, Pokey. “I was there a couple of years and loved it. It’s always special to come back and see Pokey at the club. I think a lot of people have that same feeling. He was always still there.”
If and when Pokwinski finds a buyer for Club 400, he plans to continue running the other bar he owns, Cahoots & Co. in Genesee Depot, with an eye on retirement in a few years.
“It’s been an interesting ride. Let me tell you that,” he said.