This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
The family that owns Casale’s Halfway Club, the oldest restaurant in Reno, Nev., had a tradition: When members of the clan turned 21, Tony Stempeck served them their first legal drink.
Mr. Stempeck’s mother and the family matriarch, Inez Casale Stempeck, would present the honoree with a key to Casale’s — if she deemed him or her worthy. Mr. Stempeck would follow up with a sermon about the weighty trust entailed in handing a 21-year-old a key to a restaurant with a fully stocked bar.
Mr. Stempeck died on Oct. 19 at his home in Reno. He was 63. The cause was Covid-19, his daughter Haley Kramer said.
His mother had died a month earlier, at 93, of causes unrelated to the pandemic. In a blink, Casale’s doyenne and heir apparent — they were called Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles for the length of their tenures — were both gone.
His mother called herself the owner-operator of the restaurant; Mr. Stempeck was more its social ringleader. He played dice against customers on the bar, with drinks as the stakes. He brought everyone outside to hit golf balls across the street in the middle of the night.
Sometime in the 1980s, Mr. Stempeck decided that the label of every bottle of Jägermeister finished at the bar should be signed by all present and stuck to the wall. The ritual evolved into Mr. Stempeck’s giving patrons permission to sign vacant wall space (if they could locate any) after they downed two shots of the drink. Returning customers sometimes searched for signatures they’d left decades ago.
“People would come from far and wide just to see if Tony was working that night,” Ms. Kramer said.
Mr. Stempeck strengthened Casale’s in less visible ways. His mother had always cooked by taste, without needing to measure ingredients. When someone asked to publish a recipe from the restaurant, the family caught her giving one that was blatantly misleading.
Around a decade ago, Mr. Stempeck devised a way to determine what exactly went into the dishes.
“I went down to the restaurant, weighed every canister of spice in the kitchen, she made the sauce, I reweighed the canisters, and then we knew,” he told The Reno Gazette Journal.
For the first time, the Casale’s family had written recipes.
“We’ve been raised to take the restaurant over,” Mr. Stempeck added. “It’s a part of keeping Old Reno alive.”
Anthony Patrick Stempeck was born on March 2, 1957, in Reno. His mother and his father, Casimir Stempeck — known by his Navy nickname, Steamboat — ran Casale’s, which Ms. Stempeck’s maternal grandparents had founded as a grocery store in 1937. Tony grew up in a house out back, so close that he could leap from his front door into the back door of the restaurant. He graduated from Sparks High School in 1975.
One night while working at Casale’s he took the purse of Janet D’Amico, a customer, and hid it behind the bar to keep her around. They had a whirlwind courtship, married in 1990 and divorced in 2003. Ms. D’Amico died in 2007.
In addition to his daughter Haley, Mr. Stempeck is survived by another daughter, Cierra Marin; two brothers, Charlie and John Stempeck; three sisters, Madaline Zanoni, Maria Rogers and Helen Jayme; and his partner, Lynne Clark.
A devoted father, Mr. Stempeck ordered wood chips and top soil for the construction of a playground at his daughters’ elementary school. He volunteered in the school’s front office, as a crossing guard, at bake sales, at spaghetti buffet fund-raisers. Casale’s regulars, accustomed to the Tony who poured shots of Jägermeister, found it hard to believe, but for two years running he was parent of the year.
After the death of Mr. Stempeck’s mother, Ms. Kramer ordered business cards for him inscribed with her old title: owner-operator.
They arrived the day Mr. Stempeck died.