by Chris Lazzarino / Photographs by Steve Puppe
This article originally appeared in Issue 5, 2015 of Kansas Alumni Magazine.
It is our sincere honor at Kansas Alumni magazine to present the big stories: superb students, talented teachers, rigorous research, accomplished alumni. And then there’s the occasional interlude—now, for instance, as The Wagon Wheel Cafe celebrates its 60th anniversary—when it’s time to take a breather and instead write about chicken-fried steak, Wangburgers, impromptu alumni reunions on festive football Saturdays and afternoon gin games in the corner booth.
Any inclusive list of Mount Oread’s hallowed sites—the Campanile, Potter Lake, the Chi-O Fountain, Uncle Jimmy Green—must also make room for that sacred place within the place, the high altar toward which alumni, students, faculty and locals furtively glance between burger bites and beer sips, hoping to glimpse a KU celebrity: The Wheel’s famous corner booth, where Jayhawk royalty find refuge and we regular folks hope to one day gain admittance.
“You never knew who you were going to meet there,” says Southern Methodist University men’s basketball coach Larry Brown, assoc., whose lifetime corner-booth pass was upgraded to platinum status when his 1988 KU team won the NCAA championship. “I met John Riggins there, which was kind of cool. I met [PGA golfer] Gary Woodland on my last visit, which was cool.
“You had such an unbelievable mix. You had a lot of people from town and a lot of students, so it was always a nice thing. I could just … people allowed me to be myself. Every time I come back, I go with Bill [Self], and we still do the same thing.”
Sit in the corner booth. Order up lunch. (Make it a salad for coach Brown.) Talk. Laugh. Reminisce about old times. Meet and greet and generally feel a little heady about slipping away for an hour or two to act a bit silly inside a timeless Jayhawk shrine.
Not much changes at 507 W. 14th St. That’s why it remains a treasure in the life of the University, and, considering it has been that way since 1955, The Wheel is in rare company in a town defined by turnover. To be fair, The Wheel is not entirely unchanged, and one development in recent years might be the most troubling to us traditionalists.
Seems that calling the corner booth the corner booth tags you as an old-timer.
“The college kids,” current owner Rob Farha, c’88, says with a laugh, “call it the hot tub.”
For a remarkably thorough examination of the backstory of The Wagon Wheel Cafe and its underlying property we can thank Wichita attorney Tyler Heffron. After enrolling in a national historic preservation research workshop, Heffron, l’05, decided to focus on The Wheel.
“To be honest, it was my last semester of law school and I wanted to do something fun,” Heffron recalls from his office at Triplett Woolf & Garretson, where he is a partner specializing in civil litigation. “I knew it had been around a long time, and I suspected that the building had to have been something before it was The Wheel. Turns out that was accurate.”
According to Heffron’s extensively documented research—an academic exercise that was never submitted for consideration by historic preservation councils—a large swath of the eastern slope of Mount Oread was first owned by U.S. Sen. Edmund G. Ross, a former Army officer who had two horses shot out from underneath him at the Battle of Westport; founded Lawrence’s first Free State newspaper, the Kansas Tribune; and, after his appointment to the Senate following U.S. Sen. James H. Lane’s 1866 suicide, political pariah for turning against fellow “Radical Republicans” by casting the deciding vote for acquittal in the 1868 Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.
Ross’s heirs sold their patriarch’s Mount Oread property in 1919 to prominent Lawrence businessman J.D. Bowersock, but the lot on which The Wheel is now perched might have been purchased from Ross more than a decade earlier by stationers D.L. and Anna Rowlands, who in 1906 built a new bookstore—on what was then called Adams Street—and moved their popular, longtime Massachusetts Street business closer to students on campus. Except for a few modifications and additions in the 1920s and ’50s, their 1906 neoclassical Craftsman-style cottage, which also served as the Rowlands’ family home, is the same structure we see today.
From 1906 until its apparently sudden departure sometime around 1954, Rowlands College Book Store remained “Booksellers to Jayhawkers” and the place “Where Students Go” for textbooks, stationery, engineer’s instruments, Jayhawk souvenirs, toiletries and snacks.
The family, KU and Lawrence suffered a terrible loss on March 28, 1912, when Mr. Rowlands died following “a very serious operation.” Publishing its lamentation on the top of the front page, the March 29, 1912, Lawrence Daily Journal-World bemoaned, “There was not a man in Lawrence better to his family than D.L. Rowlands nor a man who made more friends for himself. Ever since coming to Lawrence he has been in the book business and in his College Book Store he came in contact daily with hundreds of students who learned to love him.”
The Rowlands family carried on, and even opened Rowlands Annex at 1237 Oread Ave. The flagship store on 14th Street was part of what Heffron described in his research as a “student services corridor” that also included a clothes cleaning and pressing business near Rowlands; the Jayhawk Cafe and a neighborhood grocery at 14th and Ohio; and, at 14th and Tennessee, a tobacco store, barbershop, and, at the current site of Bullwinkles Bar (formerly The Bierstube), a small restaurant called The College Inn, which was taken over shortly after World War II by Jim and Virginia Large, who previously owned a thriving bus-station sandwich shop in Cabool, Missouri, serving soldiers traveling to nearby Fort Leonard Wood.
“They made a lot of money doing that,” recalls the Larges’ son, Jim, b’66, from his home in Lake Quivira, where he is retired from a 30-year career at Hallmark Cards. “And then after the war they realized there was no future with that bus station.”
Mrs. Large’s sister, Dorothy Thomas, who owned Allison Thomas Flowers at 941 Mass, urged them to move to Lawrence, and here the Larges took over The College Inn. When Rowlands departed, sometime in 1954 or perhaps early 1955, Jim and Virginia Large decided to move up the hill; during a visit to a Lone Star farm owned by the father of Homer Allison, Dorothy Thomas’ business partner in the flower shop, the Larges found three discarded wagon wheels and struck upon the theme for their new restaurant.
Renting the building from the family of Gertrude Rowlands Wetmore, the Larges in 1955 opened The Wagon Wheel Cafe. With tablecloths, candles, and ceramic water and tea pitchers, the Larges hoped to make a success of a nice restaurant close to campus yet catering largely to local folks.
They used the outdoor display case that had featured Rowlands’ goods to cook ham, enticing customers with the aroma. Steak, shrimp, omelettes and fresh pies were on the menu. Beer was not.
“My mom didn’t want to sell beer and she didn’t want to have pinball machines,” Large recalls. “They wanted to have a nice restaurant and have it open seven days a week. Once they did that for about the first year they realized that nobody was coming there because they wanted to drink beer.
“That’s when they switched it over to burgers and fries and beers. It took off and was phenomenally successful.”
The Larges supplemented the business by opening a newsstand and sundries shop in the lower level, where The Wheel Pizza Co. is now located. They embraced their new clientele, yet continued to employ professional servers, rather than part-time student employees, and kept the tablecloths and candles, hoping to discourage a rowdy atmosphere.
“Because my mom had such a presence, all the sororities felt that it was a very safe place to go for food and beer,” Jim Large says. “They just kind of gravitated to my mom because she ran it as most of the girls’ parents wanted. The Jayhawk used to be the place, and then all of a sudden, when all these girls started coming in, they all shifted up to The Wheel.”
A photograph apparently taken in late 1954 or early 1955 shows the vacant building while in transition from bookstore to restaurant.
Success came at a price. The Larges, their son recalls, worked tirelessly, recharging only during the winter holiday, spring break and especially summer vacation, when Mr. Large took refuge at Lawrence Country Club. There one of Large’s golf partners was James Wooden, whose son, John, was one of the best junior golfers in the region.
John Wooden, ’61, gave KU a try after his graduation from Lawrence High School, but by all accounts he quickly judged that college was not for him. Instead he sold cars and real estate, and, at some point, went to work for Mr. Large at The Wheel.
“He was a hustler,” lifelong friend John Hadl, d’68, associate director of athletics, says affectionately. “He was always hustling something, and he was good at it, and everybody loved him in the meantime.”
Wooden told the University Daily Kansan in 1986 that he bought half of The Wheel from the Larges in 1965 and the rest in 1966, the same timeframe he shared with employees—although he was known to also add when relating the story that the second half of the purchase was for $1. Family members say he was working there at least by the winter of 1966, although apparently not as the owner, and Jim Large says it’s his understanding that Wooden bought The Wheel from his father in 1969, after working there for perhaps a year previously. Wooden’s accountant, Dean Radcliffe, ’64, agrees that a 1969 sale is “pretty close.”
Whatever the precise timeline might be for the sale from the Larges to Wooden, it is certain that at some point after the mid-1960s, the long hours, relentless clouds of cigarette smoke and changing student attitudes had finally eroded the Larges’ enthusiasm. When their son returned from Vietnam, in 1969, he made it clear that he did not intend to carry on the family business.
“My dad wanted me to take it over, but I didn’t want any part of it because I saw what it did to my dad. It was a killer business. He would work 16 hours a day when he ran that thing and at the end of the year he just looked like he was about ready to die.”
Once the Larges completed the sale to Wooden, the family left the business behind. Jim Large says he rarely returns, yet the family retains both affection for The Wagon Wheel Cafe and pride in its campus legacy.
“Most people today associate it with Woo. But I run into people all the time who were in school in the ’60s and they always say my dad was the greatest confidant they had. My mother, too. The girls would all talk to my mother when they had personal problems and the guys would talk to my dad.
“They were very good people. They loved those kids.”
Enter Dr. Woo.
“First of all, he was one of a kind, there’s no question about that,” Hadl says. “He loved KU to his bone. He just was a KU man all the way. And he was a hell of a golfer, too. He could shoot whatever he needed to shoot. He was a crook, basically, at golf.”
“He had a handicap that I don’t think was worthy of how well he played,” coach Brown says. “He was a tremendous player. He didn’t look like one but he could play.”
“He didn’t play golf for free,” says Jackie Wooden Loneski, Wooden’s third wife, “and he didn’t play gin for free.”
“Once a year he’d let us come play golf with him,” says Farha, a former student employee and manager who bought The Wheel from Wooden’s estate after Woo died on March 4, 1997, at 57, while putting on the 18th green in Palm Springs, California. “He wouldn’t gamble with us because he wasn’t going to take money from his former employees, but on the 18th hole he’d say, ‘I’ll play for a double-dip pistachio ice cream cone.’ And every time we’d meet back at his house afterward and I’d have to go by Baskin-Robbins and buy him his ice cream cone.”
L: Mandy Wooden Gorman in front of a photograph of her father that hangs above the corner booth. Also visible are photographs of 8-year-old Mandy with her father and the photograph of John Wooden with John Riggins that appeared in a 1983 Sports Illustrated profile of the Hall of Fame running back.
R: In an image taken shortly before his untimely death, Wooden on a golf trip at The Plantation Golf Club in Palm Desert, California. Courtesy Rob Farha
“The Wheel was as much a part of my father as anything,” says Wooden’s daughter, Mandy Wooden Gorman, g’00. “He had this way of making people … I don’t know if it was feel special, but when they came to The Wheel it was as if he was always waiting for them to come in.”
Jim Connelly, d’68, g’72, a jewelry artist and owner of Silver Works and More, worked at The Wheel after returning from Vietnam and enrolling in graduate school. When Connelly couldn’t find a job after graduation, Woo installed him as manager at another bar he’d recently purchased, The Harbour Lights, at 1031 Mass, which he apparently owned until sometime in the late 1970s. Wooden also briefly owned a second bar on the same block on the west side of Mass, The Voodoo Hut, and he bought The Wheel’s building from the Wetmore family in 1975.
By then Connelly was borrowing money from Wooden to buy gold for his jewelry business, which in the 1970s was soaring toward $400 an ounce.
“He was sitting in the booth and he says, ‘Well, how much do you think you need?’ I said, ‘Maybe $500.’ He said, ‘OK, here you go.’ So he gives me $500 to buy gold.”
Cash, whether for gambling or paying employees, was Wooden’s preferred currency. He generated about 25 percent of his gross sales on football game days—“They are not that anymore,” Farha says, explaining that the growth of pregame tailgating and fluctuating kickoff times dampened The Wheel’s football game-day tradition—and Jackie Loneski recalls Woo coming home and counting the cash on their bed. He was also known to tuck bills into employees’ back pockets at the end of their shifts; it wasn’t much, but it was cash.
“There was one time I said, ‘John, I’ve got to quit. This is not enough money for as long as I’ve been in here working,’” Connelly recalls. “So I quit on him, and then he came back and got me the next day. I had a couple of friends who worked for him and they probably set the record for the number of times John fired them and then hired them back again.
“He helped an awful lot of kids, he really did.”
Sean Butler, c’91, vice president of human resources at Mosaic, the world’s largest supplier of phosphate and potash, was managing The Wheel when former manager Charlie Farha, ’83, stopped by with Rob Farha, a freshman, in tow.
“Charlie said, ‘I’d like you to meet my little brother. If you can find a way to give him a job, that would be great,’” Butler says from his office in Lithia, Florida, near Tampa. “So we slipped Robbie into the payroll. I think he worked his first game day and we realized he had some character and charisma and we could probably move him up the food chain pretty quick over the next two or three years.”
“Oh, boy,” Butler adds with a laugh, “do I regret that …”
Rob Farha doesn’t shy away from his freshman nickname, a play on “Robbie” that emphasized his lanky frame—all knees and elbows. “Knobbie” seemed to fit, and it stuck. The customized “Knobbie” license plate that has hung behind the bar since Butler put it there in 1985—in honor, he says, of a particularly outstanding job Farha did in cleaning out behind the Dumpsters after a frenzied game day—is testament to the fact that Farha doesn’t duck the less-than-elegant moniker.
Farha corrects his former mentor in one minor detail, however: His first shift wasn’t on a football game day, but rather a notorious annual spring bash with its own unfortunate name—[insert Kansas town name here] Trash Night. It was spring 1985; Farha was a freshman when his cousin Tim, b’87, also a Wheel manager, called him and said, “Get up here at 11.” Since The Wheel closed at midnight, Knobbie responded, “What, one hour?”
No, in fact. Many hours.
“I was the cleanup boy,” Farha recalls with a laugh. “That was my first night, until Sean hired me in the fall of ’85.”
Wooden named Farha one of his managers in fall 1987, and he continued in the job through May 1989, a semester after his December graduation. Farha then “bounced around Kansas City,” managing a Westport club for a year and selling clothes at Woolf Brothers on Ward Parkway. When American Century Mutual Funds launched a hiring boom in 1992, Farha signed on as a customer service representative.
But he always returned regularly to visit with Wooden.
“He was my confidant,” Farha says. “American Century was a great company but how far was I going to go with them? So I’d always bug Woo: ‘Why don’t you sell me the bar?’ And his quote was, ‘I’m not selling it until after my daughter is married.’
“So I go to Mandy’s wedding, and I ask him at the reception, ‘Your daughter’s married. Are you ready to sell me the bar?’ And he chewed my [butt].”
Farha laughs at the memory, but adds softly, “And then he died three months later.”
Jackie Loneski says her late husband always told her he’d like Farha to return and run the bar, “But no, he wouldn’t have sold it. That really was his life.”
Mandy Gorman, who returns to The Wheel frequently with her family—in part, she says, so her children will grow to appreciate their grandfather’s legacy—says she understands when people say her father “died doing what he loved,” on a golf trip to Palm Springs, but that doesn’t diminish the pain.
“Anytime there’s a sudden death like that, people search for the right kind of words to comfort,” she says. “But it was a shock. It was absolutely a shock. Yes, he went doing what he loved, and certainly you can’t quite imagine him going in a better way. I just wish it wouldn’t have been so early.”
Suddenly forced to confront the status of a seasonal business that needed leadership in place before the start of fall classes, Gorman knew one thing for certain: She would not run The Wheel.
“That was never, ever my intention, nor was it ever my father’s intention. The thing he always said to me was, ‘Never sell the building. Never sell the building.’”
When she asked for bids on the business, Farha’s stood out. Not just because he’d always been one of her father’s favorites, but because of his pledge to respect the traditions in which her father had taken such great pride.
“Robbie just felt right,” she says. “He was not going to change anything, and that, to me, is the goal for The Wheel. Yes it’s for the students, but as alumni, when we come back we want to see that it hasn’t changed. And not everyone who was interested in buying it understood that.”
Finally confronted with the goal he’d been pursuing for years, Farha had to first face his fears: a good job with a Fortune 100 company, retirement plan and health insurance versus being self-employed in a seasonal business whose most profitable days might have already passed. So Farha stopped in for a visit with his boss’s boss, an executive named Brian Jeter.
“Before I could say two words he said, ‘I know why you’re here. Get the hell out of here. If it doesn’t work I’ll hire you back in two years.’ That was the best push I could get.”
Farha laughs and adds, “And he was a Missouri guy, too.”
“How good was Frank in the fourth quarter?”
Topeka Capital-Journal columnist Kevin Haskin is asking men’s basketball coach Bill Self for a comment about the electrifying second-half performance by point guard Frank Mason III in the first of two June exhibition games in the Sprint Center against Team Canada.
Haskin is deservedly one of Self’s favorites, and as he starts to give a thoughtful reply, Self, noticing Farha standing back near the TV lights, grins and asks, “Is this the media room?”
“Yeah,” Haskin says. “It is.”
“Well, how the hell did Knobbie get in here? Summer career? Must be providing free pizzas for everybody.”
So, yeah, he’s made it. A laughing namecheck by none other than Bill Self, in front of a room full of reporters, assures that. Rob Farha, now in his 19th year as The Wheel’s owner, is no longer a mere caretaker of the business built by Jim Large and John Wooden. Shout-outs come frequently, too, from Farha’s sportscaster pals Neil Everett, Scott Van Pelt and Rece Davis, who are known to holler, “Powered by the Wangburger!” when narrating KU basketball clips on ESPN—not because The Wheel was No. 3 in USA Today’s 2013 ranking of the nation’s best college bars, but because they’ve patronized the pub and left as fans and friends.
Coach Brown loved the place so much that one year he even contracted with Wooden to host his team’s training table in The Wheel. (“I think he probably overcharged us,” Brown says with a chuckle.) Farha used to have lunch ready for former men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and assistant coach Joe Holladay, who frequently ended their afternoon jogs and power walks at The Wheel. Sports Illustrated profiles of both John Riggins, ’81, and Larry Brown included photographs of them at The Wheel.
“I admit, I love it. It boosts my ego a little bit,” Farha says of the TV shout-outs and famous patrons. “I’m not a big celebrity chaser or whatever, but boy, I want them to come by.”
That’s because The Wheel’s celebrity reputation helps Farha maintain his pledge to Gorman about avoiding change. He resists when students urge him to add promotions or curry to the rowdier crowds that fill other nearby college bars. “It’s probably cost me a little bit of business,” Farha concedes, “but I kind of like to keep the mystique the way it is.”
Tyler Heffron sees The Wagon Wheel Cafe as a crucial connection point between city and campus that goes far deeper than football game days and alumni reunions over cold beers and hot hamburgers.
“The fact that it’s been a bar that long is certainly a tradition in and of itself,” Heffron says, “but I think maybe the whole story behind the building and the underlying property shows how that particular spot, and that larger area, drew the University and community together for a long, long time.
“The building itself, from an architectural standpoint, is nothing significant. It’s what’s happened there. That’s what makes it historic.”
Sadly, one tradition has ended: The owner of The Wheel no longer deals cards. Ever since the 2012 death of his gin-game buddy Marcus Patton, d’65, g’72, PhD’74, Farha has stopped playing afternoon games in the corner booth. Not that others aren’t welcome to … if first they can somehow secure one of the toughest tickets in town: hot-tub seating in The Wagon Wheel Cafe.
“You knew you graduated from KU when you had your diploma,” Sean Butler says. “But you knew you really graduated when you could sit in the corner booth.”
Royalty at last.