Remembering Big Lou

I first met Lou right after World War II. I was a juvenile delinquent for the norms of that era and Lou had a bar just over the Junior Avenue bridge in Elm Grove appropriately named “Lou’s”. The city of Wheeling was pretty wild then; everyone was selling illegal alcoholic beverages. The state was supposed to be “dry” with only 3.2 beer allowed. Gambling games and machines were common, poker was very popular, and there were a number of no limit games that were open to to those who wished to play.

Lou’s was a fairly typical operation, as he sold 3.2 beer and mixed drinks which consisted of bar whiskey mixed with Coca Cola, ginger ale or club soda. There were no fancy back bars with the various bottles displayed. All the liquor was kept out of view so that it appeared to be strictly a beer joint in case a policeman came in, which rarely if ever happened. All the arrangements were made with police outside of business hours. There was no food.

The building was a small house with a few small rooms stripped of everything except some small wooden tables and chairs. Most of the floor space was for dancing to a juke box.

The place was always packed with young couples; there were no stags or singles. I don’t remember any air conditioning. The hot humid nights of summer went unnoticed in the heat generated by the close dancing of the couples crowded into these small rooms. “They danced so close they should be married,” one wag said. It was the place to go.

Lou was the bartender and that was the extent of the staff.

The guys were constantly wiggling and worming their way to and from the bar carrying drinks back to their dates. The snail slow service probably cut down on the alcohol consumption. Outside there was a dirt parking area with no lights. Cars were parked haphazardly on a space available basis and all over the berm of Junior Avenue with people coming and going all night.

The amazing thing about this place was that there was never any trouble, and the reason for that was Lou.

Lou was one of those unique men who was truly a presence, because of his size — he was well over six feet and had the impressive body of an athlete. And, he carried it all with with cocky self-confidence. He was handsome, with a million dollar smile with one of those Mussolini-like lower jaws. Visually, he was no one to mess with.

He also had charm. He remembered people’s names. When you walked into his place and Lou yelled across the room “Hey Hogie, how’s it going?”, You knew you were where you were supposed to be and you felt important.

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I believe Lou, who was one of nine children, came out of one of the many coal mining camps that were company owned from top to bottom. The miners lived in company houses with company outhouses for which they had the rent deducted from the credit received for the coal they mined. It was all in the books kept by the company. They were not paid wages in U.S. currency but were issued company fiat money called scrip. The scrip was worthless everywhere except at the company store. Add to this the fact that most of the people spoke little or no English and you had a system of virtual slavery at the worst and indentured servitude at the best. I have never understood how people escaped from this system. Perhaps induction into the army during WWII helped the breakout.

Lou parlayed his handsome looks and his wonderful athletic ability, packaged in charisma, from that coal camp to high school football hero to country club golf courses.

Mary Ann’s first cousin was a scholar, a PhD in the classics and was to become a world authority on Cicero. He also had played football against Lou in high school. Whenever Brady came back home to visit family he would spend a night having drinks and talking with Lou.

Lou called me one time and said he found a wonderful place to pick black berries. We spent a couple of hours at this place in Ohio and scored heavily with berries. That trip was always worth a big hello and a “Let’s go berry picking”.

The point is, he was a very intelligent fellow who could schmooze with anybody, and I believe his secret was that he thoroughly enjoyed people, all kinds of people.

When Lou looked at you and signaled with his chin that he had something to tell you, you knew it was important because it was said out of the side of mouth in a whisper. Even if it were only a weather report, you felt enlightened, or better, “let in”.

Lou was most unusual. He was out of the hellish cauldron of the old time coal camps with his character hammered out on the anvil of the depression. He broke out of deprivation and broke through the social stigma associated with his humble beginnings to become a respected sportsman as well as not only a respected but sought after man about town. He did this with looks, athletic ability and personality. He did it with courage, and with what we called “guts”. Lou was a presence.


Editor’s note: Read more about Lou Cuffaro in his newspaper obituary from 2014. There is an error in his birthdate in that document; it should say 1922.