Lenny Daniels was the type of bartender everyone wants, and the friend everyone needs.
In his “Everyday Prayer Book” — with scribbled notes, tattered binding and pages softened by decades of use — several underlined prayers served as a mantra that, when lived out, drew strangers and loved ones to him:
“Keep me aware of the needs of others.” “Widen my vision beyond my own small world to embrace with knowledge and love the worlds of others.”
His wide lens and warm heart helped lead to his induction in the Bartender Hall of Fame in 1986.
Daniels died of natural causes on Sept. 18 — one month shy of his 99th birthday.
Leonard “Lenny” Daniels was born on Oct. 16, 1921, to Ernest and Leah Daniels in Clontarf, Minn. During Prohibition, he and his seven siblings were unwitting accomplices to his father’s bootlegging operation, carrying jugs to and from the family’s barn. The illegal production and sale of alcohol was a way for his dad to supplement his railroad income during hard times.
When Daniels was 20, the U.S. entered World War II and he and his three brothers each enlisted in a different branch of the armed services, with Lenny choosing the Marines. He was slight, 5-foot-5 and 128 pounds. Daniels was assigned to operate tanks and fought in Guam and at the famed Battle of Iwo Jima.
Like many WWII vets, Daniels didn’t talk much about his time in the military, said his daughter, Cheryl “Sherry” Dease. He was proud of his service but didn’t like war or fighting.
Upon returning from the war, he married “the love of his life,” Lavona “Vonnie” Fiala in 1948, Dease said. The couple lived in Crystal, had one child and both worked. “It was a balanced, equal relationship. He wasn’t a chauvinist,” Dease said. “And being his only child, he was the best playmate to me.”
Daniels made a career out of serving people drinks, mainly at the Covered Wagon in downtown Minneapolis and Jax Cafe in Golden Valley, both now closed.
But he wasn’t much of a drinker himself. He was a devout Catholic and lived that way. “He lived by the rules, but he didn’t make his rules apply to anyone else,” Dease said.
If people were in a good mood and needed a co-celebrator, Daniels was there for them. If they wanted to show him pictures from a recent vacation, Daniels looked on with genuine interest. And if they were struggling, Daniels was especially responsive.
In 1982, Daniels was heartbroken when he lost his wife to cancer. He became actively involved in his four granddaughters’ lives, attending all of their activities.
“When you live a simplistic life, when you aren’t surrounding yourself with chaos, it’s easier to be open and kind,” Dease said of her father’s life choices.
His prayer book was actually his late wife Vonnie’s, which he made his own after her death. In it was another prayer Daniels had underlined: “Make me tolerant and kind to others.”
In 1989, he met and married his second wife, Janet Aarestad. “Janet saved Lenny from a life filled with grief and loneliness,” Jillian Dease, his granddaughter, said in a eulogy.
In many ways, Daniels seemed an archetypal figure of the Greatest Generation, but he was not frozen in the past. “He did not begrudge change. He rolled with it,” Jillian said.
In a 1987 Star Tribune article about his Hall of Fame induction, Daniels described tending bar as an education. “You learn that people are important, and different, and you learn to accept the differences,” he said.
Daniels is survived by his wife Janet; daughter Sherry and son-in-law Bill Dease; sister Gloria Chioles Goelz; stepdaughter Rosemary and son-in-law Guy Bierman; four granddaughters and nine great-grandchildren. Services have been held.