Dan Kenney, 66, the beloved bartender and general manager of the Pen & Pencil Club, the nation’s oldest daily operating press club, died on Christmas after a five-year battle with leukemia.
A fixture in the late-night drinking scene in Center City, Mr. Kenney since 1992 had overseen the club, founded a century earlier. He was known for his professionalism, intelligence, and respect for patrons, fostering an environment open to industry veterans and newcomers alike — not just in journalism, but in the restaurant and hospitality fields.
Raised in Brewerytown and living in South Philadelphia for more than three decades, Mr. Kenney was a lifelong Philadelphian “dedicated to city living,” said his wife, Ellen. Now a middle-school science teacher, she was 21 and working as a waitress four decades ago when she met Mr. Kenney one night at the Pen & Pencil. He was 26 and worked as a bartender at McGlinchey’s, another Center City bar.
He was “very charming, very funny,” with “a real sarcastic sense of humor,” his wife said.
“Dan managed the club the way a conductor directs an orchestra,” said Inquirer reporter Chris Brennan, who was president of the club for 10 years. “It wasn’t just the complicated task of mixing multiple cocktails for a thirsty crowd. Above that, Dan was always surveying the club’s three-sided bar, looking for ways to connect people, to spark conversations, to create conviviality.”
“Amid the turbulent characters the Pen & Pencil attracted, Danny stood like a lighthouse of calm and sanity,” said Stu Bykofsky, a former Inquirer columnist who was a longtime club secretary.
A graduate of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and holder of a degree in music education from Temple University, Mr. Kenney had an early job as a cook before gravitating to bartending. “He taught briefly, and it just wasn’t for him,” said his sister, Janet. “He was a night person in general.”
As a patron at the Pen & Pencil, Mr. Kenney would sometimes help out behind the bar.
He took over after bartender Leroy Helm died in 1991, recruited for the job by Ronald A. Patel, an editor at The Inquirer, who died in 2000.
Bartenders “like being in control of their little realm,” Ellen Kenney said. Her husband “liked the organization of it, but he also liked the bartending part of it. He liked talking to people who were interesting.”
Mr. Kenney was “one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered,” said Bobbi Booker, a journalist and jazz host for WRTI who serves as president of the club. “He would just make a wry comment to flip whatever your stance was on its head.”
Well-read, Mr. Kenney at one point had a dozen or so newspaper subscriptions delivered to the club under his name, Booker said. “Dan would sit here and read every one of those papers,” she said.
When he wasn’t tending bar, Mr. Kenney liked visiting other bars, his wife said. The couple enjoyed dinners with friends, and he was devoted to his two children. He traveled each summer to Hungary to visit his daughter, Elizabeth, and her daughters, Emese and Maya. His son, Daniel, who died last year, had a son, Rowan, who also lives in Europe with his mother.
Mr. Kenney also cared for his niece, Rubiela Arnold, and her sons, Christian and Daniel, the latter named after him.
“Dan put his family first always,” Ellen said. “And he is going to leave a gaping hole that can’t ever be filled.”
Despite living with leukemia for five years, Mr. Kenney continued working at the Pen & Pencil. He was still managing remotely, fielding text messages, as recently as a week and a half ago, Booker said.
“There were people that no matter what, when they came into this venue, the reason they stepped through the door was because Dan Kenney was the person behind the bar,” Booker said.
When she was a young reporter, Booker said, she “felt like I had finally arrived” while at the Pen & Pencil. “It wasn’t because the big guys and gals were acknowledging me,” but because Mr. Kenney treated her — a black woman entering a traditionally white, male-dominated industry — the same as anyone else.
The city’s media landscape is more diverse today, Booker said, in part because of “steps that were made quietly, right here in this club. And Dan being one of the people behind it, making sure the playing field was level.”
She was at the club Thursday night, as patrons toasted Mr. Kenney with his signature drink, a Manhattan.
Funeral and other memorial arrangements were pending.