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Anyone who asks Jeno Berta how he is doing always gets a standard response: "Better than some, worse than others."

For the last three decades, Berta has owned and operated Jeno's Little Hungary in northwest Davenport.

The local watering hole and meeting place has become an institution and prominent hangout for local Democrats, hosting candidates from mayor up to President Joe Biden.

A framed photograph of Biden's late son Beau Biden and Jeno M. Berta hangs above the bar. Berta's son, also named Jeno, served with Beau Biden in Iraq in 2009.

Berta also served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and 1980.

"It's just a wholesome and positive environment," said former Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba. "Jeno is a friendly, open, decent individual who is just so positive."

But after nearly 33 years in business, the 83-year-old is calling it quits.

Berta still runs the bar largely by himself, with some part-time help, seven days a week and 364 days a year. He is now in the process of selling the business.

He said he has received some interest and is holding out for the right offer and the right operator.

"Thirty-three years is enough, and I tell you in 33 years I was so fortunate to meet a lot of wonderful people," Berta said. "Thousands. Maybe more. Birthdays. Weddings. Retirements. Baby showers. Campaign events. ... But, you see, every good thing comes to an end sooner than later. Nothing lasts forever. ... I want to do something different while I can still move around."

He said he plans to travel and spend more time with his family.

"The first thing I want to do is see the Statue of Liberty one more time," Berta said.

Teri Timmerman owns Tropical Breeze Tanning next door and has known Jeno for the last 23 years.

During that time, never once has he forgotten a name or birthday for those who frequent his establishment. Not to mention what they drink, which he always has at the ready, along with one of his patented stories. 

"The stories he told of how he came here are just phenomenal," said Davenport resident Cindy Welte, who worked at the bar from 2010 to 2014.

Fleeing communism for freedom in America

Born in 1937, Berta was 6 or 7 years old when he watched the Nazis march a group of Jews through his Hungarian farm village of 50 families.

He recalled his mother and grandmother setting out water, milk, bread and apples on a bench.

They were people who, Berta said, "never did anything wrong."

The Nazis, he said, marched them like livestock past the food that had been set out. No one touched it. A Nazi soldier later kicked the bench over in outrage.

In October of 1944, Berta’s father brought home a last load of corn in his wagon from the fall harvest. Along with his father came a Jewish couple and their two children.

He remembers his father telling him, "We can't save them all, but we're going to save these four," Berta said.

His family hid the Jewish couple and their children in the family's barn, nervously listening for barks from the family's dogs to alert them if anyone approached the barn.

During the fall, winter and spring, the Bertas kept the Jewish family fed and hidden until April of 1945, when Soviet troops liberated the village.

The only difference, Berta said, between the Nazis and the Russians was the language and the uniforms.

After 11 years of Stalinist rule and violent occupation, Berta, then a college student in Budapest, fled to neighboring Austria at the age of 18 after fighting in the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

His left hand still bears the scars of taking to the streets in the national uprising demanding a more democratic political system and freedom from Soviet oppression.

A hand grenade exploded in his hand, taking parts of his thumb, pinky, ring and index fingers.

"I threw it too late and it blew maybe a half a second (later)," Berta said.

Soviet tanks and troops rolled into Budapest on Nov. 4, 1956. Thousands were killed and wounded and nearly a quarter-million Hungarians fled the country during the Soviet invasion, including Berta.

He left with three of his friends, two of whom were captured crossing the border, which included barbed wire fence and a guard post every 200 yards.

After spending months skipping from one refugee camp to another, Berta eventually reached the United States in March 1957, arriving at a military camp in New Jersey.

Days later, the then-19-year-old was on his way to Casper, Wyo., for work when his bus broke down in front of the old Davenport Hotel downtown. He never left.

"We stayed in the hotel. Sunday morning, we come out (from attending mass across the street at St. Anthony's Catholic Church) and the bus was gone," Berta said.

A local institution

Berta became a U.S. citizen five years later, on Sept. 6, 1962.

He worked 32 years at Riverside Foundry/Sivyer Steel in Bettendorf, where he served as president of United Auto Workers Local 377. He opened his bar in 1989 after a bitter labor dispute left him looking for new ventures.

Meanwhile, he married a school teacher, Catherine Berta, who died from cancer in 2010. The couple raised a son, also named Jeno, but with a different middle name, who became a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and lawyer in Bettendorf.

The younger Berta recalls one Christmas when he was home from law school. His father closed the bar at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve like normal.

The following afternoon, on Christmas Day, his father asked him if would come with him to the bar to throw more wood into the bar's wood-burning furnace. His father promised his mother they wouldn't be long.

"There were guys out in the parking lot of the bar on their motorcycles, who said, 'Jeno! We were hoping you'd open up,'" Jeno M. Berta said.

At first, his dad refused, but eventually relented to allowing "one drink."

"I give you two guesses to what happened next," he said. "Word got out. And this was before cell phones and texting and social media. I jumped behind the bar. Fortunately, it's a beer and a shot place. We do not have an elaborate wine list, so it was in my scope of very, very limited bar-tending skills."

The phone soon began ringing off the hook. So much so that the younger Berta would answer, "Jeno's, we're open" to save time. Unfortunately, one of those phone calls was his mother.

"And I did the only thing I thought was appropriate, and I held out the receiver and I looked at my dad and said, 'It’s for you,'" the younger Berta said.

Among Jeno's regulars is Quad-Cities radio personality Greg Dwyer, who became friends with Berta's son. Dwyer remembers stopping at the bar after local charity basketball games in the '90s, sitting on the back porch on a Friday and Saturday night and watching people play sand volleyball under the lights, "welcoming the beginning of another day."

"It was the kind of bar every time you walked in there, you knew somebody who was already in there," Dwyer said. "And those are the kind of places that I feel like there's less and less of these days. ... He's responsible for many budding relationships."

Dwyer added Berta is the kind of proprietor "always up for a good story, a great joke, but never put up with any shenanigans or tom foolery from his patrons."

To this day, Berta can recall individuals he banned decades ago who are still prohibited from stepping foot in his establishment.

"If you treat his bar and his employees with respect, you're going to get it back threefold," his son said.

"What's funny, though, is 30 years he spent running that bar, and his English never got any better than the first day I met him," Dwyer joked.

Dwyer said he plans to patronize the bar until it sells.

"I hope he sells the place before I've paid off my tab," Dwyer said.

This article originally ran on qctimes.com.

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