published Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Bartender a legend to Chattanooga elite

Noah Oliver stands behind the bar at the Mountain City Club in downtown Chattanooga. Oliver was a bartender at the Mountain City Club for nearly 50 years before retiring, and the club recently named their new patio in his honor.
Noah Oliver stands behind the bar at the Mountain City Club in downtown Chattanooga. Oliver was a bartender at the Mountain City Club for nearly 50 years before retiring, and the club recently named their new patio in his honor.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

When Noah Oliver came to work at the Mountain City Club there were no women, no Jews and no blacks among its members. It was 1963, and he was 26 years old.

The club was in the old, storied building on Chestnut Street in downtown, where there was a table for “The Guineas,” a group of wealthy men with special chairs.

There were famous football players, judges, bankers, Coca-Cola executives who came for drinks and dinner, all allowed in by votes and dues. Some men spent so much time there in their old age that they died in their favorite chairs.

And as the club changed, moved locations, went through membership ups and downs, admitted outsiders and opened up private dining areas, Oliver was always on the fringes, pouring whiskey and gin. Over time, he became a warming presence for the upper crust.

The CEOs and lawyers called his pour the “Noah Pour” and the bar upstairs the “Noah Bar.” This month they named a new brick patio on the side of the club “The Noah Oliver Patio.”

“Nobody got nothing to drink unless they came to me,” he said.

His name gleams on a black plate above a door to the outside.

Members describe him as a legend.

“Noah quickly distinguished himself as the best of the best and became an iconic example to both wait staff and members,” said Henry Franklin, president of the Mountain City Club and CEO of Signal Voice and Data. “There were those that refused to dine unless Noah was assisting them.”

But earlier this year, Oliver left the Mountain City Club. After 50 years behind the bar, he was forced to retire because of gallbladder surgery. When he was in the Navy he had been shot, and a bullet was still lodged in his gallbladder when doctors took it out.

“I have been dizzy weak and stumbling ever since,” he said. “And I’m not going to die on this job.”

Since April, when he stopped serving, he has come back only a few times. The club held a party for him when the patio was opened.

Over time, he has collected a lot of stories, snippets of conversations he shouldn’t have heard, insights into a world most don’t see. Out of respect for the men (and wives) he served, he keeps most of his memories to himself.

The help learns to keep secrets, he said.

“That is an unwritten law,” Oliver said.

But a few stories do tumble out from time to time.

He likes to talk about Jack Lupton, the Coca-Cola bottling magnate who dumped millions of dollars into the city.

In the upstairs pool room, where women weren’t allowed for many years, Lupton met friends for cards. After he died, handfuls of folded cards, dollars bills and change were shellacked to the table, a permanent reminder.

Once, on Christmas, Lupton gave Oliver a $500 tip.

“The night his daddy [Cartter Lupton] died he was at the bar waiting for the call. When the call came he had the chef give the staff his food. He gave me a $100 tip, too. I said, ‘I want Mr. Lupton’s steak,’” he said.

Wealthy families have asked him to hand out beer and wine over the years at their parties. He talks of 27-room mansions with elevators and airplanes and limousines.

There was one night when a couple was getting divorced and the wife came in and drank four bottles of Dom Perignon with a girlfriend. The husband, a doctor, called him and said, “Give her anything she wants,” said Oliver.

He remembers pulling rowdy boys up by their pants when they ran too fast or talked too loud at the club. Later, he poured those boys their first drinks, and helped them to the bathroom when they drank too much. Even later some of those boys became club executives.

“You never hear a whole lot of scat back stuff, I mean cussing and raising Cain and that kind of stuff,” said Oliver. “Rich people just don’t take to cussing like the people down there on Martin Luther King or the lower end of Market Street.”

Even after he retired, patrons from the club have called him up, asked him to come hand out beers on their fishing trips. At the end they would give him cash and the small fishes caught.

He smiles and pops off bottle lids.

It’s all part of the job. It was all part of what he needed to do to pay for his eight-room brick home in Avondale and support his seven children.

For 27 years he balanced working full time at the Tennessee Valley Authority with his nightly bar duties. His wife worked full time at Memorial Hospital.

“She put in 38 years,” he said.

The club came under fire from time to time for exclusionary policies and elitism. But Oliver never thought much about it. When he was grumpy, he would get a $20 tip. He was too busy to worry about club membership.

The rich and powerful want cheap drinks and peace and quiet, and they can afford it, he said.

Still, he was happy to know the few blacks and Jews who eventually joined. He was happy to see President Barack Obama voted in twice.

“I have lived in this world all my life. You can’t beat people in the head and make them do something,” he said. “When they finally let them come in, it went along smooth.”

A woman named Karen Manis has replaced him at his bar. Some members bickered about a woman coming into the den, but she said Oliver taught her how to get along. Big pours. That’s the key.

“I had to stand between her and the men,” he said. “They just couldn’t get used to it.”

“I told them I have been doing this for 30 years. I don’t pay no attention,” she said. “They love Noah. They would take him back tomorrow. I am serious.”

Soon Oliver will find out just how much that love is worth.

The members will vote on his retirement package just in time for Christmas.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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