DRACUT -- When the longtime owner of O'Hara's Tavern, James Gookin, decided last year it was finally time for him to fully retire, he also determined that he didn't want to sell his popular Irish pub to just anybody.
"That was Jim's biggest fear, that someone would come in and start changing everything," said O'Hara's new co-owner, Donna Gagnon. "It's a good business with a great staff, and many regular customers who come here. Jimmy wanted to keep it as it is."
Gookin, 77, a retired Lowell police captain, was proud of the reputation his tavern has carefully built over 17 years, since moving to its current location at 1734 Lakeview Ave., as a charitable and peaceful gathering place, where most of the pub's loyal, local customers know each others' names.
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"You don't change something that runs well and is successful," Gookin said on Friday by phone from his retirement residence in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was preparing to return to Dracut for O'Hara's annual St. Patrick's Day celebration on Sunday.
"People are happy there," added Gookin. "We don't have problems. We don't have fights. None of that sort of (misbehavior) by the kind of people you don't want."
Which is why Gookin and his loyal customer base were equally pleased when Gagnon, O'Hara's bar manager of 13 years, and her partner, Dan Hamelin, stepped forward to purchase the business in January, according to O'Hara's events coordinator and bartender, Leslie Cregg-Hyder.
"When the customers found out Donna and Dan were buying it, they were overjoyed because everyone likes it there as it is," said Cregg-Hyder. "You remember the Boston bar, Cheers, how they'd call out (on the TV show), Norm! It's that sort of place, where everybody knows each other."
Cregg-Hyder said the tavern was packed for last month's "Changing-of-the-Guard Party," a triple celebration meant to honor and wish Gookin well in retirement, as well as welcome Gagnon and Hamelin as new owners, and raise money (later tabulated as $4,000) for O'Hara's annual entry in Lowell General Hospital's Team Walk for Cancer Care.
"For a little pub, we do pretty well with our charities," Cregg-Hyder said.
Fundraisers are sometimes linked to the nightly activities that go on at the tavern, including: Trivia night, karaoke, dart leagues. Wii video games and ping-pong.
The sale of O'Hara's was not related to the cancer-diagnosis Gookin received about five days after the tavern's sale to the new owners was agreed upon, he noted.
"Jimmy had O'Hara's on the market before he found about his health problem," said Gagnon. "He was encouraging me to buy it, (saying), 'You can do it, Donna. You can do it,' and he even offered to be my partner."
"But then he got sick, and I said, 'Don't worry about (the partnership),' and we bought it," Gagnon added.
Gookin had gone to see his doctor about what seemed to be a "nasty cold" he was suffering from. A chest X-ray revealed some bad news: lung cancer. Gookin was hospitalized.
"He actually found out a few days before my wedding," said Cregg-Hyder, who described Gookin as an "unbelievably good boss" at O'Hara's. "I was looking for him (at the wedding) -- Where is he? They were afraid to tell me he was in the hospital.
With the sale of O'Hara's being newly fast-tracked and completed, Gookin was better able to focus on his health, Cregg-Hyder said. "Fortunately, they caught the cancer fairly early."
"I'm doing good now. I'm in remission," Gookin reported on Friday, as he looked forward to returning to the place where everybody knows his name, and he theirs.
"I enjoy the people there. About 80 percent of them I know well," said Gookin. "Our customers also come from Lowell and Tewksbury, besides Dracut. It's a really good bunch that goes there."
Last week readers of The Sun's whatdoUwannado? section voted O'Hara's Tavern as the area's "Best Irish Pub."
"Jim was pretty happy to hear that," Cregg-Hyder said.
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