With dedication and stubbornness, Robert A. Lucas spent his life serving up cheesesteaks and drinks in a Camden bar whose reputation seemed to draw attention to the city for all the right reasons.
The owner of Donkey's Place had no qualms about keeping his menu simple and his bar frills-free, and maintaining the business in the struggling city in which he was born.
"He used to say this thing," his wife of 39 years, Elsie, said. "You sit them down and feed them, and they go out with a smile on their face."
After spending most of his life behind the adored bar at Haddon Avenue and Liberty Street, Mr. Lucas, 75, of Medford, died Friday, July 31, following a fight with lung cancer, family members said.
Mr. Lucas, who was born in Camden and raised there and in Medford, grew up helping around the family business, started by his father, Leon, a former Olympic boxer whose punch was likened to the kick of a mule. The elder Lucas opened the bar in 1943 in what had been a speakeasy.
Mr. Lucas graduated from Rancocas Valley Regional High School. By the early 1970s, he had begun running Donkey's, which continued to hold its place as a Camden landmark, serving factory workers of long-gone eras, neighborhood residents past and present, police officers and city workers, and those who came simply to try one of its savory sandwiches.
Like the bar itself, Mr. Lucas, who stood more than six feet tall, became a fixture in the neighborhood. Most called him Bob. Others referred to him as "Mr. Bob" or "Donkey."
"He came in every day he possibly could," son Robert Jr. said Monday, standing behind the bar.
"He was a really good guy," said Frank DiSalvio, 76, a Collingswood resident and Camden native who had known Mr. Lucas since childhood. Noting Donkey's staying power, he added as he prepared to bite into a cheesesteak: "He had to be well-liked."
The reputation of the bar's cheesesteaks - served on poppy seed Kaiser rolls from Del Buono's in Haddon Heights - has rivaled that of famous stops across the Delaware River.
"The best cheesesteak in the area might well come from New Jersey," the television chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain said on a recent episode of his CNN show.
Munching on one of the sandwiches while he visited the bar this year for Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Bourdain told Mr. Lucas that the eatery should be a "national landmark."
Once, former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell asked Mr. Lucas to consider moving across the river.
It was at the bar that Mr. Lucas met his future wife. Elsie Lucas said a cousin living in an apartment above the establishment introduced the two; it was "love at first sight," she said, remembering dreaming about her future husband the same night.
Diagnosed with cancer in 2009, Mr. Lucas was adamant about working "even despite the fact that I told him he needed to rest," Elsie Lucas said. "Bob loved going to Camden - he grew up there, he liked having his business there."
He was excited about being featured on Bourdain's show, Lucas, a nurse at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, added. "I'm sad he didn't get to enjoy it to the fullest extent that he should have with being so sick," she said.
While the family's spin-off eatery in Medford, Donkey's Too, offers chicken cheesesteaks and other items, Mr. Lucas remained a "purist," his wife said. The Donkey's Place menu in Camden only offers the classic cheesesteak and fries.
"When you come here, you smell the onions right outside," James Roberts, 34, a Cherry Hill resident who grew up in Camden, said. "It's just a classic place."
Mr. Lucas "was always a pleasant guy," Roberts said Monday. He said he noticed the owner's absence upon walking in Monday.
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said in a statement that Mr. Lucas' "presence behind the bar at Donkey's will truly be missed, and his contribution to Camden City will always be remembered."
Mr. Lucas enjoyed spending free time with his family, and was known for taking countless photos and videos. He enjoyed fishing, and often visited Tuckerton and Barnegat Light in Ocean County.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Lucas is survived by children Joseph Lucas, Lisa Bystrzycki, and Luis Mendoza; two grandchildren; and a sister.
A Funeral Mass on Saturday, Aug. 8, will follow visitation from 8 to 10 a.m. at St. Joseph's Polish Catholic Church, 1010 Liberty St., Camden.