Love, life and death at Java Jack's
As the air in Java Jack's Coffee Caf slowly fills with the chatter of customers and a rich aroma, a group of regulars take their places at several of the shop's small tables.
While they read the paper, discuss current events and reminisce, some of them can't help but feel there's something missing.
That's because there is. For years Dick and Marian Hunsaker, like about a dozen other regulars, faithfully showed up at the little coffee shop at 818 W. 46th St. every day. If the weather was good, they often made both a morning and afternoon stop.
It was hard not to notice when they made their daily appearance. After pulling up in their sporty Jaguar in front of the shop at 10 a.m., the elderly couple - he wearing a sophisticated little cap and she her designer sunglasses - helped each other slowly make their way inside. They always ordered two medium coffees, for which Dick Hunsaker often paid with exact change. When possible, they sat outside so they could smoke as they sipped their coffee.
“I couldn't ignore them. It was impossible,” said Java Jack's owner Jerry Nelson, adding that workers often had the couple's coffees waiting on the counter for them.
The other regulars at the locally owned coffee shop couldn't ignore them either. Many got to know the couple simply from striking up conversations about one thing or another.
“They were kind of a fixture,” said 78-year-old Jim Martinka, who has been coming to the coffee shop since the weekend it opened in 1992. “They made quite an impression on this place.”
Their memorable presence is what has made their absence so sorely conspicuous. At the end of February, Dick Hunsaker died at the age of 84 as the result of a number of health problems. Without him, 83-year-old Marian Hunsaker moved to an assisted living facility in New Prague, where her granddaughter has a home and can help care for her.
But neither left without a final farewell to the coffee shop that had become like a second home over the years. After Dick's memorial service, a reception was held at Java Jack's for friends and family. As a testament to how great a part of their lives the coffee shop was, about six or seven regulars attended the memorial service and another 15 or so joined to pay tribute to him at the reception.
It was the first time Java Jack's has ever been involved in a memorial service, owner Pam Nelson said. But in this case, it seemed fitting.
“Java Jack's was such a part of their life that it was actually in his obituary,” she said. “It just reminded me of what a unique thing we have going here with the regular clients.”
Marian Hunsaker said Dick would have been proud to be honored at Java Jack's.
“They had a wonderful party for all of these people, and it was just so very nice,” she said.
While Marian Hunsaker's granddaughter has promised to bring her to visit Java Jack's from time to time, for now, many at the coffee shop must fill the absence of the couple with fond memories.
“They were definitely, definitely characters,” Jerry Nelson said. “He didn't have any problem giving his opinion on something. If you didn't know him, you'd think maybe he was a gruff old guy, but he wasn't at all. He just loved to be sarcastic.”
And according to the regulars, he also had a deep love for Marian. The two had led separate lives until they were reunited at a 50-year all-school reunion a little more than a decade ago.
“Dick and Marian were obviously deeply in love and really lived for one another and were happy to be together,” Martinka said.
When they moved to Minneapolis, Dick and Marian Hunsaker found Java Jack's and were hooked.
“The people that went there were just interesting and nice,” Marian Hunsaker said. “It was really great.”
Kristin Guerrette, Marian's granddaughter, said her grandmother has always been very connected within her community.
“She's always been a very social person,” Guerrette said. “But I think [visiting the coffee shop regularly] was a bigger part of Dick's life. He was really a very social person.”
None of the regulars seems to remember how they started talking with Dick and Marian - or each other.
“We would just slowly come together,” said 76-year-old Durber Allen, who has been a regular at Java Jack's since the mid-1990s.
“I just talk to everybody,” Martinka said. “I've always been that way. If you come in half a dozen times and I'm around, you're no longer a nobody. I'm here to meet people. Coffee is really secondary.”
That is exactly the coffee shop culture that Java Jack's embodies. Many of the customers know each other, which is why the loss of one spirited regular bears such weight. According to Martinka, Java Jack's has inspired half a dozen marriages. At one time, he said, 30-40 regulars knew each other by name and greeted each other. Now there are roughly a dozen regulars who come in every day, according to Jerry Nelson.
Martinka said the Hunsakers' sophistication and distinguished manner made them not only conspicuous, but also interesting to strike up a conversation with.
“We talked about current events. And of course we talked about the old days when things were better. We would say, ‘What the hell is happening to the world today?'” Martinka said. “We talked about our military service and what it means to be an American. [Dick Hunsaker] was a deep thinker.”
Jerry and Pam Nelson both laugh when they think of all the debates and spirited conversations the regulars have had - especially during last year's election season.
“We've solved all of the world's problems here,” Martinka said with a smirk.
But Kris Martinka, Jim's wife and a regular herself, pointed out that not every topic of discussion was deeply philosophical: “Of course we talked about very practical matters, too. Where should we go to get our car fixed? Do you know anything about this moving company?”
Standing at the counter in Java Jack's, employee Julie Rathmann also said not everything about Dick and Marian Hunsaker was so serious.
“They were hilarious. Whenever Dick would come up here, he would pull his wallet out with flair like this,” said Java Jack's employee Julie Rathmann, swinging her arm from her pocket with gusto in an imitation of Dick.
Jerry Nelson said seeing regulars like Dick and Marian Hunsaker come in every day is enjoyable because he knows how much it means to them.
“It wasn't just going out, it was a major part of their day,” Jerry Nelson said.
Even when both of their health began failing in recent months, Jim Martinka said Dick and Marian were “hell-bent” on getting down to the coffee shop. A week before Dick Hunsaker died, Jerry Nelson said they called and asked if he could pick them up and drive them down to the coffee shop.
“That's when I knew it was really bad,” Jerry Nelson said.
Kris Martinka said the coffee shop was their whole social life.
“What impressed me about them is they didn't let anything keep them down,” Kris Martinka said.
Life at the little coffee shop will, of course, go on without them. For now it might not feel the same, but Jerry Nelson said, with time, the shop will pick up pace and fill in the void created by the absence of Dick and Marian Hunsaker's colorful characters.
“There's definitely a gap,” he said. “There's something missing right now.”