On July 5, we lost a Hattiesburg legend, Nick Kolinsky.
There are a lot of people who could tell Nick’s life story better than I, but there is probably no one – outside of his immediate family – who respects the lifetime achievements of Nick Kolinsky more than me.
I am a restaurant guy. I am a bar guy. Nick Kolinsky was one of the forefathers of those businesses in this town, and this passing leaves a huge void in our profession.
Nick Kolinsky was a South Mississippi Renaissance Man before South Mississippi Renaissance Men were cool.
He was an Army soldier, a star college football player who was drafted into the National Football League, a musician, a radio-station disc jockey, a multiple bar owner, a restaurant owner, and an entrepreneur who created a successful ice-supply business and a successful moving and transport company. And last, but certainly not least, the creator of one of the most legendary, time-honored, beloved, and enduring dive bars (and I use that term with great admiration and respect) in the entire state of Mississippi – Nick’s Ice House.
Just one of those previously mentioned accomplishments – done successfully during the course of a lifetime – would garner praise and admiration from any of us, on any given day. But to have done them all, and to have done them all exceedingly well, while maintaining a reputation for honesty and integrity is something we just don’t see much these days.
To have done all of that, and to have been a good and faithful husband, and a dedicated father and grandfather is rarer still.
So, what do we consider “a life well lived?” In my book – it’s not the stuff – material things don’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s experiences shared and lives impacted. I submit to you that in the categories of experiences shared and lives impacted, Nick Kolinsky gets an A+.
Someone once told me that one of the hardest things to do is to do something nice for someone and not tell anyone about it. No one did that better than Nick Kolinsky.
He once saw a special on television about a young World War II Marine who dove on a grenade to save three of his fellow soldiers. Jack Lucas, the youngest person ever to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, was homeless and living in a box when Kolinsky saw the news story. He made cold calls to local CBS affiliates and finally to CBS in New York, and eventually the show’s producer led him to Lucas. Kolinsky brought him to Hattiesburg to live with his family until he could get back on his feet. He did, married and lived out his life surrounded by friends and his adopted family in South Mississippi.
One day, when the history of Hattiesburg is written, the name “Nick Kolinsky” will – without a doubt – go down as one of our better angels.
I stopped drinking in 1983, so Nick lost me as a bar customer a long time ago. But being a restaurant owner – and in our early days being in constant need of ice – and as someone who moved to different houses several times over the past couple of decades, Nick and I did business together.
There are many things I admired about Nick Kolinsky, some I mentioned earlier. His personal life is a testament to all of us, and his living testament is his wonderful family, and the love and respect that he garnered from them. But one of the most impressive business aspects of Nick’s life was his work ethic. Nick Kolinsky had a work ethic greater than that of men half his age.
Nick was tough. He was old-school single-cross-bar-football-helmet tough. He battled the competitive atmosphere of the Hattiesburg bar scene for almost five decades and won. Around 2000, he had a quintuple heart bypass operation and that procedure was barely over before he started radiation treatment for throat cancer. It barely slowed him down.
A few months after he kicked throat cancer’s ass he bowed up against congestive heart failure and exercised his way back into what the doctor’s determined was “near normal heart function.” Nick Kolinsky was real man tough.
At 73-years old, Nick and his crew, along with his son, Buddy, moved my family from a house we had occupied for 19 years. It was hot and there was a lot of stuff. I expected Nick to come out and give me a bid on the move and then turn the heavy lifting over to the crew. That wasn’t going to happen in a Nick Kolinsky-run business. Nick led the crew. He was there every step of the way. As a man in my late 40s, I felt guilty that I was inside in the air-conditioning, while the 73-year old, former heart patient and cancer survivor was outside in the hot truck. What I know today is that Nick wouldn’t have had it any other way. There are a thousand other stories like that in this town.
When it comes to judging a man based on his work ethic, you can put Nick Kolinsky – who led by example – at the top of my list.
After Nick passed, a friend of mine said, “Hattiesburg will be a little more ‘vanilla’ now that Nick is gone.” I understand that sentiment, and I know where he was coming from when he said it, but when I look at it closely and study the legacy and impact that Nick Kolinsky had on this community for 55 years, I would say that it is anything but vanilla. The town Nick Kolinsky left behind is a much better place than it was when he found it. That is his legacy. That is what we are grateful for. That is what will make him be remembered for generations to come.
Well done, thy good and faithful servant.
Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, speaker, philanthropist, father and husband – but not necessarily in that order. In addition to being the brainchild behind the Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella and Ed’s Hamburger Joint, he’s also the founder of Extra Table, a non-profit organization created in 2009 with the mission of ending hunger and obesity in Mississippi.