Jack Kujawski, 71, bartender and resident scholar of the National Press Club

August 13, 2011

At a burly 6 feet 4, Jack Kujawski had the look and manner of an old-school city editor who wouldn’t hesitate to challenge a crooked cop, the mayor’s office or his reporters. He had all the right instincts of a good editor: He kept up with the news and had a deep knowledge of history, politics and grammar. And, because of the nature of his work, he understood human nature better than most.

“He was a very astute reader,” Donna Leinwand, a reporter at USA Today, said recently. “He’d say, ‘Did you ask this? Don’t you think next time you should ask that?’ ”

Only Mr. Kujawski didn’t issue his questions and edicts from a desk at a newspaper or magazine. He served up his opinions from behind the bar at the National Press Club.

For 26 years, he was a curmudgeonly but kindly presence dispensing cocktails and quips at the Press Club’s Reliable Source bar, a private sanctum for Washington’s journalists and newsmakers. He was 71 when he died May 26 of cardiovascular disease at his home in the District.

Mr. Kujawski, who worked the daytime shift in recent years, didn’t talk much about himself. There were only a few things about him that his customers knew: He was a proud son of the hardscrabble coal country of eastern Pennsylvania; he was fond of old movies — especially ones with John Wayne — and kept a television in his bar constantly tuned to Turner Classic Movies; and, even though he hadn’t gone to college, he was an immensely well-read man.

“I would say he was better educated than most of the people who come in here with Ivy League degrees,” longtime club member John Rahming said.

Mr. Kujawski devoured several daily newspapers, subscribed to military history magazines and read a great deal of history, philosophy and literature.

“When Jack was tending the bar, it drove up the average IQ of the place,” said Aram Bakshian Jr., a club member and former White House speechwriter.

Mr. Kujawski didn’t hide his conservative views, and he made it his mission to maintain standards in a world he believed was losing them.

“He strongly believed there was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things,” Leinwand said. “He did not like flavored martinis. One time, when I asked for something he didn’t approve of, he said, ‘That’s not a very sophisticated drink for a woman like you.’ ”

When Mr. Kujawski arrived at the Press Club in 1985, journalism had lost many of its rough edges from its “Front Page” past. Not too many years before, a few old-timers would start the morning with an eye-opening martini. It took three bartenders to keep up with the thirsty lunchtime crowd.

Presidents and senators used to stop by the club to unwind with journalists — conversations were strictly off the record — but ever-tighter schedules and security put an end to that practice. Out-of-town newspapers cut back on their Washington bureaus, and reporters began to spend more time at the gym than at the bar.

For someone of Mr. Kujawski’s temperament, the changes were not always welcome.

“I think he yearned for the life that journalists used to have,” said Mark Hamrick, president of the Press Club.

Mr. Kujawski grumbled about frou-frou drinks, and he complained when anti-smoking laws eliminated ashtrays and clouds of smoke from the bar.

“Despite his gruff exterior,” Hamrick said, “his soft side touched a lot of people.”

A couple of years ago, after an Italian journalist died, Mr. Kujawski adopted her cat, which he promptly renamed Sparky.

“We can judge the heart of a man,” Mr. Kujawski often said, quoting the philosopher Immanuel Kant, “by his treatment of animals.”

When Mr. Kujawski died, friends found hundreds of books in his condo, as well as dozens of toys for Sparky — who has found a new home.

John Gerald Kujawski was born Dec. 21, 1939, in Shenandoah, Pa., best known as the birthplace of the bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. His father, a World War I veteran, was a baker; an older brother was killed in World War II.

Mr. Kujawski was drafted into the Army in 1962 and assigned to an intelligence unit as a cryptographer. He spent a year in Vietnam, where he intercepted messages, relayed coded information and sometimes guarded U.S. schools and other installations.

Decades later, doctors told him that exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam may have led to an autoimmune disorder that affected his health.

The 20 years between Mr. Kujawski’s Army discharge in 1965 and his arrival at the Press Club remain something of a mystery to family and friends. He lived in California for a few years and said he once auditioned to be a stand-in for James Arness, the star of “Gunsmoke.” He didn’t get the job.

By the early 1970s, Mr. Kujawski was in the District, where he worked for a time as a bartender at the Wardman Park Hotel. His marriage in the 1970s to Nancy Smith ended in divorce. His second wife, Ann Grantham, died in 1996. Survivors include two sisters and a brother.

Each year, Mr. Kujawski treated a group of friends to a lavish dinner at a restaurant, but few people saw him anywhere but behind the bar at the Reliable Source.

“Jack didn’t talk about his wife, his brother, his sisters, his cat,” said Mesfin Mekonen, his boss at the Press Club. “He was very secretive about his life.”

Despite ailments, Mr. Kujawski continued to work until shortly before his death. In his white shirt, black tie and red vest, he was the high priest of the bar, performing his duties with knowledge, purpose and devotion.

Rahming, who sat across from Mr. Kujawski hundreds of times over the years, said simply, “This was Jack’s cathedral.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.