Raise a Glass to the Namesake of Zinck’s Night

Legendary Ithaca bartender inspired annual celebration

When you hear the first few notes of “Give My Regards to Davy,” you can probably sing along with perfect recall—even if you’re a little fuzzy about the meaning of the last line: “We’ll all have drinks at Theodore Zinck’s when I get back next fall!”

As a Cornell phenomenon, Zinck’s Night traces its roots to the proprietor of a downtown Ithaca hotel bar in the late 1800s. In those days—before Collegetown offered closer alternatives for imbibing—students would gather there after class for conviviality and five-cent beers served by the notable barkeep, a German immigrant named Theodore Zinck.

A vintage photo of Theodore Zinck
Barkeep Theodore Zinck, seen in an autographed photo. (Photo provided)

“He was a character. He had a thick accent and was legendary for his memory of customers,” says Cornell history expert Corey Earle ’07. “Alumni would come back to visit years later and he would call them by name and say, ‘Hey, you still owe me a buck fifty!’”

Though that bar closed in the early 1900s, a handful of establishments around Ithaca bore the Zinck’s name over the following decades, until the last closed in 1967. But its memory lived on, and eventually spawned a new Cornell tradition. In fall 1973, members of the senior class created a social club called the Spirit of Zinck’s.

Thirsty seniors could consult the Daily Sun for the location of that week’s meeting, usually a far-flung taproom like the Dryden Hotel or the Rongovian Embassy in Trumansburg. Every Thursday evening, after attendance had been duly noted on a cocktail napkin, the revelers would get down to business—namely, selecting the location of the following week’s festivities.

Alumni would come back to visit years later and he would call them by name and say, ‘Hey, you still owe me a buck fifty!’

Cornell history expert Corey Earle ’07

“We wanted to bring seniors together in a casual setting,” says John Foote ’74, the society’s co-founder. “We appreciated that we only had a little bit of time left on the Hill and we wanted to get to know our classmates better.”

A black and white photo of two men outside Zinck's Grill
Zinck’s was once a popular watering hole for students and locals alike. (Photo provided)

The events are concentrated mainly in dozens of cities in the U.S., but also take place worldwide. From Australia to Ireland, Japan to Djibouti, Hong Kong to Ithaca, Cornellians meet for a night of trivia, door prizes, singing Big Red songs, and celebrating East Hill memories with fellow grads. “It connects alumni across the years,” says Foote. “It’s a wonderful way to meet and chat with Cornellians of every description.”

In 2020, due to COVID, revelers marked the occasion with a series of small gatherings and online offerings—shared on social media and unfolding in various time zones around the world—dubbed “24 Hours of Zinck’s.” Plans are currently in the works for the 2021 festivities, set for October 21, which will again be a combination of in-person and virtual. More than a dozen regional celebrations have been announced so far, including gatherings in Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the U.K.—and, of course, Ithaca, where it all started.

Top image: Photo illustration by Cornell University.

Published October 8, 2021


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