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Thomas Farragher

Poignant, pensive ‘last call’ for a Clinton institution

Michelle Manter of Milford poured herself a cup of tea inside the Old Timer, a Clinton institution since 1929.
Michelle Manter of Milford poured herself a cup of tea inside the Old Timer, a Clinton institution since 1929. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

CLINTON — It was nothing less than this town’s communal kitchen, a warm place on Church Street where you came after the searing and the soaring mileposts of life to be among friends and neighbors, people who had watched you grow up — or who had grown up with you.

In its tap room and among the booths of the dark-paneled dining room you’d toast the dead, roast the groom, open your shower gifts, or spread out the Sunday newspapers and settle in for a long afternoon of beer and baseball.

So on Tuesday morning when the news ricocheted around this small town built along the banks of the Nashua River that the Old Timer was closing, it is not an exaggeration to say it was a local bulletin that carried a tectonic emotional payload.

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“It’s a disaster for the town – it really is,’’ said Gordon Lankton, who has his own plaque over at corner table where he dined daily for 50 years, the table where he plotted the growth of Nypro Inc., the local firm he nurtured into the town’s largest private employer. “This was the place to be.’’

It certainly was.

Since John and Helen McNally turned what had been a street-side flower shop into the bar that would become the Old Timer restaurant back in 1929, Clintonians have made it the answer to some of life’s most common and comforting questions.

Where should we go after the movies? After the wake? After the local high school football game? After we say goodbye to dad at St. John’s Cemetery?

The OT. Of course.

“This is literally a Clinton institution and I don’t know how many people know Clinton because of this place,’’ Terry Ingano, the local schools superintendent and unofficial town historian, told me at noontime Tuesday as the Rotary Club meeting was about to convene. “It kind of put us on the map, really.’’

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“I knew it was coming,” said Irene McNally, who joined with her husband to buy the Old Timer from his dad in the 1970s.
“I knew it was coming,” said Irene McNally, who joined with her husband to buy the Old Timer from his dad in the 1970s.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Yes. There’s the Wachusett Dam. Jimmy Carter’s 1977 visit. And the Old Timer.

There are Old Timers sprinkled throughout many small towns of New England. They serve as a sort of social glue, an exchange for gossip and minutiae. The kind of place where a father would buy his son his first legal beer. And then have one for himself.

But this is my small town. And this was the place where my friends and I would gather on Friday nights, dissecting local sports heroism, the latest failed high school romance, or future academic or career paths with the intensity of nuclear fusion.

I loved it. All of it.

There was a pay phone in the corner of the bar back in the day. And I would answer it on weekends to talk to lonesome college kids, friends calling from State College, Pa., or South Bend, Ind. They knew their friends would be at the OT. And I knew that, too. During my college days, I sometimes rang that pay phone, too.

Why? Because we knew what was on the other end of the line. Walter “Coach” Cannon would be behind the bar. Jimmy McNally, who with his wife, Irene, bought the place from Jimmy’s father in the late 1970s, would tell a joke or ask about your father’s job or your mother’s latest illness.

Like many people in Clinton, Jimmy McNally had a nickname. It was “Boogers.’’ And, wearing a crisp white apron and chef’s hat, he would carve the roast beef on Wednesday and Sunday nights and serenade his guests with a voice so strong and so sweet that every year the Catholic church next door, St. John the Evangelist, would ask him to sing “O Holy Night’’ on Christmas Eve. Fall on your knees, indeed.

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So when I sat in the tap room on Tuesday just before the Old Timer opened for one of its last lunch hours, I was surprised what I saw in the faces of Irene McNally and her son Brian, who now runs the place. Peace.

“My Guinness supplier right now is having a heart attack,’’ said Brian McNally, 50, who inherited more than a little of his father’s warm and welcoming personality. “Closing is good for business. But I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m a little relieved.’’

And there’s little wonder why. The place you and I go for a burger and a beer is often a seven-day-a-week proposition for owners who have to meet the payroll and pay the bills.

There were few better years for the OT than 2006. Gangbusters. Then the Great Economic Recession hit with a staggering force and the place never regained its economic footing.

Lunch crowds dwindled to a trickle. Brian considered expanding the bar, cutting into the dining room behind it. But the numbers never came together.

“The landscape has changed,’’ McNally told me. “People don’t go out for lunch as often anymore. They brown bag it. Our biggest problem used to be getting people out of here at 1 in the morning. Now, sometimes at 10 o’clock, we’re pretty empty.’’

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McNally is considering a second career as an instructor at a culinary school. His mother wonders whether there’s a place for her as a volunteer at the local senior center.

When Jimmy McNally died a couple of years ago, a little bit of the OT’s soul went with him.

“I could have served SpaghettiOs on toast and he would come out and sing ‘Danny Boy’ and you would have thought it was the best thing you’d ever had,’’ Brian said.

But with his dad gone and as the economic margins of his business shrinking every day, the McNallys knew it was only a matter of time.

They gathered their staff to tell them on Monday night. There were long faces and more than a few tears.

“My thought always has been: What will the people of Clinton ever do if we close?’’ said Irene, who had fed this town (population 13,600) for two generations. “But I knew it was coming. I pay all the bills.’’

As he looked out at the tap room that has been his life since he was a kid, Brian McNally remembers all the fun and craziness created there.

Such as? Well there was the night before the funeral of a local kid who’d made it big on Wall Street. His New York friends, masters of the universe, had too much to drink. They were astounded when the owner jumped over the bar and arranged for a sober driver to get them to their bed & breakfast place. Too much grief and too much imbibing.

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“That’s a small town for you,’’ Brian McNally said. “I think a lot of people down the road are going to say, ‘Man, I wish we had a place like the Old Timer.’ I can’t say the town is going to be lost without it, but I think there will be a void.’’

I had my lunch there on Tuesday. The OT will close on Feb. 7 and I can already feel that void.

So can Tena Zapantis, a member of the local school committee who formerly owned the local cinema.

“The Old Timer is part of our lives,’’ she said. “I don’t think the sun will ever shine the same way again on Church Street.’’

Brian McNally is one of three sons of Jimmy and Irene McNally.

He likes to joke that he’s kind of like George Bailey, the central character in the Christmastime classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.’’

One brother went here, he said. Another went there.

Brian? He stayed in Clinton. He stayed with the Old Timer and gave it everything he had until he had nothing left to give.

And like the fictional George Bailey, who in his time of distress found out who his true friends were, I have a feeling that in the final days of the Old Timer, Brian McNally is going to feel like the richest man in town.

A sign at the entrance to the Old Timer.
A sign at the entrance to the Old Timer.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.