From Kollege Klub to Klassik Tavern

The Meier family journey

The Kollege Klub, the legendary student bar at Lake and Langdon on the UW-Madison campus, turns 65 this month.

But as Bruce Meier — whose dad John started the Kollege Klub, and whose son Jordan now owns it — sat at the bar of Delaney’s steakhouse on the night of Aug. 20, enjoying a Manhattan, the KK was not on his mind.

Not after Meier, 62, got a text from a manager at the Klassik Tavern, the supper club Meier has operated in Verona since 2010.

It was a night of terrible storms and there was water seeping into the restaurant.

It was not news anyone wanted, but for Meier it was particularly bitter. The Klassik was preparing to reopen the next day after having been closed for three months due to a May 23 fire. Was somebody sticking pins in a Bruce Meier voodoo doll?

Happily, the water intrusion was minimal, and the Klassik reopened on schedule Aug. 21.

A week later, I took the occasion to drop in on my old friend as he prepared to open the Klassik on a Tuesday late afternoon. I’ve known Meier since we played city league baseball together as 12 year olds. He looked happy and healthy, very much at home in the supper club setting with a clientele close to his own age, though he still drops in at the KK from time to time.

“I’ve got 46 years in downtown,” Meier said, referencing how long ago it was he started working for his dad at the KK. “Now I go in and get in Jordan’s way.”

I laughed, remembering how Meier’s dad did the same thing when he was running the KK.

John Meier — “Big Dad” to anyone who was in the KK more than once — started the bar in September 1953, with his dad, Jack Meier, and John’s two brothers. They’d purchased the old Campus Bar and Grill on lower State Street and renamed it the Kollege Klub.

“It was the students who started calling it the KK,” John said.

An expansion of the Memorial Library in 1972 forced them to move to the iconic current location at 529 N. Lake St.

In the years since, the KK has become famous as a meeting place for young male and female scholars at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, mostly after dark.

For my part, both as a student and upon graduating, I liked to go there in the morning to drink coffee and read the Chicago newspapers while watching Big Dad get in Bruce’s way after Bruce began running the KK.

Big Dad, who died in 2012, would sit with friends and tell stories. One of the most enduring was an idea he dreamed up inspired by Elroy Hirsch, the great pro football receiver who became director of athletics at the UW.

It was at an athletics fundraiser hosted by Butch Strickler that Big Dad unveiled his plan. He took Elroy aside.

“I have this idea,” Big Dad said. “But I would never do it unless you said it was OK.”

“What’s the idea?” Hirsch said.

“I want to buy an old hearse, paint it red and white and call it the Elroy Hearse.”

Elroy grinned. He loved the idea.

Nearly everyone did. “The first time we had it out in front of the bar,” Big Dad said, “a hundred people showed up.” Elroy enjoyed pointing it out to people.

Once Bruce Meier took over the KK from his dad, it also became known as a hangout for UW athletes, especially the men’s hockey team. Current head coach Tony Granato once told me that Bruce Meier is the glue that holds the Badger hockey alumni together. If they want to know who’s in town, who’s coming to town, maybe even who should leave town — Meier, or “Dok” (had to have a “k”) as he is known — is the one to call. It was the hockey players who gave him the “Dok” nickname, though its origins, alas, are on a need-to-know basis.

The baton gets passed. The last time I saw Meier’s son, Jordan, now running the KK, he was at the 2017 UW Athletic Hall of Fame gathering at Union South sitting at a table with Adam Burish, the former Badgers and Chicago Blackhawks star. I believe they were considering a plan that would allow them to miss the speeches.

Last week, I asked Bruce Meier if he was enjoying running the Klassik. I knew the answer. He opens the place himself every day. He appreciates the employees, some of whom have patronized the location for decades, and loves the customers and the true supper club menu, with its prime rib and Friday fish fry.

“This is great,” he said.

Now they just need to find the Elroy Hearse and give it an honored place in the parking lot.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.            

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