One for the Road

 

Known for serving stiff drinks, the late owner of ‘Wally’s’ is remembered for his soft side.  




“It’s a sad day. Wally, the founder of the best dive bar in Orlando, passed today. A moment of silence for Wally.”

—Text message sent by my niece BJ

Walter Updike had heard his beloved Wally’s Mills Avenue Liquors referred to as a “dive bar” many times. He didn’t care for that description. Wally’s, a package store with a walk-in closet-sized bar set in a hardened bunker of a corner building, was a neighborhood pub, he would insist. It had character. It had stories. It had community ties.   

Updike had all of that, too, for he and the bar were one and the same.

BJ meant no offense in her text message. She loved Wally and his bar. So many people did, some knowing him not as a liquor-store owner but as Santa Claus in the Jaycees’ downtown Christmas parades of years past, or as a member of their Bible study group. Updike also was a Vietnam vet, a compassionate and ardent conservative, and a wine connoisseur. Ironically, he didn’t drink liquor or smoke, although his business enthusiastically catered to those who did both.

On September 19, Updike died of complications from diabetes. He was 65. He had been in poor health for years, and over the summer his presence at Wally’s had been reduced to the rare visit. The bar will continue to be run by managing partner Martin Snellgrove.

“He wanted the bar and Wally’s to continue,” said Snellgrove, who went to work for Updike 16 years ago.

A few weeks following Updike’s death, about 300 people attended a memorial service at College Park United Methodist Church. He was eulogized as a “teddy bear” of a man who would help anyone, a devout Christian and a chronic latecomer.

Even to his own funeral.

While pastor Aaron Ankeny spoke, a man entered the congregation hall carrying an urn. “Hold on! Mr. Updike has been late to everything else,” he said as he set the urn on a table topped with an American flag and photos of Updike.

“This is what Walter would have wanted, a rousing send-off,” remarked longtime friend Reid Rapport.

Updike deserved it. He had owned a bar known for pouring the stiffest drinks in town starting at 7:30 a.m., but it was his soft side that turned customers into regulars and employees into extended family members.

In 1954, Updike’s father, Roy Updike, founded what came to be known as Mills Avenue Liquors. It was a small package store with a back room that served as a bar. Later, he added a barroom just off the liquor store. To this day, the senior Updike’s choice of wallpaper featuring naked women remains, though sports memorabilia cover what little wall space there is in the cramped room.

“When my dad owned the place, it didn’t have a jukebox because it brought in women, and women made men behave differently,” Updike recalled during an interview with Orlando magazine in late July. Sitting on a bed in Florida Hospital Orlando, where he was undergoing treatment for heart and lung ailments, Updike looked frail. Still, he was in good spirits while reminiscing about Wally’s, which was to be the focus of an impending story. Beside him were his wife of eight years, Linda Stiles-Updike, and Snellgrove.

“It’s Cheers without the wood,” chimed in Stiles-Updike, aka “Mrs. Wally.”

After taking over the business from his father, Updike added a jukebox and made a few other upgrades, but not many. Adding “Wally’s” to the business’ name was done only by popular demand. 

During the early years of UCF’s football program, players and fans congregated at Mills Avenue Liquors, making it the de facto team bar. “Wally! Wally! Wally!” he recalled them chanting. Why? Who knows? It was probably the liquor talking. In any case, the bar had a new name.


‘Like a Family’
When Bonnie Gezelle started as a bartender at Mills Avenue Liquors in 1979 she thought: “Oh, what a dump!” She quickly changed her opinion about the place. “In the first week I had a problem and I had to go see my daughter up North, and the customers offered me their credit cards to help me get up there.”

Nearly 30 years later, Gezelle, 71, remains on the payroll, now handling paperwork for Snellgrove.

“It was like family. Walter treated everyone like family.”

Regardless of their politics.

Updike leaned so far to the right he would have fallen over had he not used a cane to help steady him. But two of his most politically involved friends were left wingers—City Commissioner Patty Sheehan and lawyer John Morgan. Before Sheehan gave a eulogy at the memorial service, Stiles-Updike, whose politics mirror her late husband’s, told the congregation: “It might be strange, being who I am, to invite a gay city commissioner to speak, but it’s stranger because she’s a Democrat.”

Morgan’s relationship with Updike and Mills Avenue Liquors goes back more than 30 years.

“You could go into Wally’s and be sitting next to the wealthiest guy in town and right next to you could be a regular Joe,” said Morgan. “It was and is a collection of people where money doesn’t matter and status doesn’t matter, and you get to talk about life and Orlando.”

Walter Updike didn’t spend his whole life in that bar. The only child of a liquor merchant, he went off to college at the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, and then to war. Afterward, he returned to South Carolina, where he taught school, then worked as an insurance adjustor. But Mills Avenue Liquors was where he belonged—and his death didn’t alter that fate.

Wally’s is the final resting place for Updike’s ashes, not that his spirit will ever get any peace and quiet there.

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