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Famed aviation watering hole to serve last round

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Trader Jon's, a ramshackle waterfront bar filled with naval aviation memorabilia that for a half-century catered to military personnel from raw recruits to admirals, is closing.

The famed bar, which also attracted astronauts, politicians and the like of John Wayne, Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Prince Andrew and Brooke Shields, will close this weekend, owner Matt Heckemeyer said Tuesday.

Heckemeyer bought the bar from the estate of Martin "Trader Jon" Weissman, who died in 2000. Weissman opened the bar in 1952 and ran it until suffering a stroke in 1997.

"With my affection for Trader and having spent years down there since flight training, it's the end of an era," said retired Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman, president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation.

Generational changes and a society that no longer tolerates excessive drinking spelled doom for Trader Jon's, Fetterman said. He predicted the bar would have failed even if Weissman, an icon among naval aviators, were still running it.

"That whole business of a commanding officer leading his whole squadron to Trader Jon's _ nobody left until the commanding officer left _ that was the good old days," Fetterman said. "Now that same commanding officer will have somebody up on a DWI charge and drum them out of the Navy."

About 10,000 items, including photographs, crash helmets, flight suits, model airplanes and assorted aircraft parts, will be acquired by a law firm that then will donate them to the foundation, Fetterman said.

Blue Angels photographs collected by Weissman over the years will be used in a future display about the Navy precision flying team at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fetterman said.

"They don't exist anyplace else," he said. "Those are treasures."

No decision has yet been made what the foundation will do with the other memorabilia.

Heckemeyer, of Sikeston, Mo., was a naval flight officer when he bought the bar for $464,000 but left the Navy to devote full time to keeping it afloat, including repairs to the century-old building.

"If I break even I will consider it a success," Heckemeyer said. Of the closing, he said, "It's ripping me to pieces."

He plans to sell the building to a downtown businesswoman but did not want to disclose her name.

The last event at Trader Jon's will be a Blue Angels party Saturday after the Pensacola-based team finishes its season-ending homecoming show.

"It was the social heart of the Pensacola naval aviation community," said retired Capt. Bob Stumpf, a former Blue Angels leader. "It's going to be missed. There's no replacement for it."

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Kent Bolin said he has been a Trader Jon's regular for 30 years.

"It's like a habit," Bolin said. "It's not the drinking that's a habit, it's visiting the place."