Tommie Wilson carries a few of the last drinks to be served at the Petroleum Club which closed its doors Wednesday night. Wilson has been the maitre d' at the club for 36 years. ELIZABETH FISCO / Courier & Press
Tommie Wilson carries a few of the last drinks to be served at the Petroleum Club which closed its doors Wednesday night. Wilson has been the maitre d' at the club for 36 years. ELIZABETH FISCO / Courier & Press

By BILL MEDLEY, Evansville Courier & Press staff writer

With one final round of cocktails, members of Downtown Evansville's Petroleum Club bid farewell Wednesday to one of the city's most storied institutions.

After issuing a warning in February about a looming financial shortfall, the organization's board of governors decided to close the doors of the private dining club on the 17th and 18th floors of the former Old National Bank Building at 420 Main St., bringing an end to its 58-year history.

"This is a tough day for the club," said general manager Tom O'Connor.

Tight economic times and the relocation of Old National Bank to a new corporate headquarters near the riverfront reduced the club's traffic and forced its hand.

The club's board of governors sent a letter to its 450 members last month asking them to pay between $500 and $1,000 each to keep the organization afloat.

Some members paid the extra assessment, but it wasn't enough, as Wednesday marked the end of the wheeling and dealing that took place over dinner and drinks in a dining room that overlooked the city.

The club traces its roots to the beginnings of the Tri-State's oil boom in the late 1930s. After a day's work, oilmen congregated at the McCurdy Hotel to talk business and unwind.

In 1948, a group of Evansville businessmen banded together to form the Evansville Petroleum Club Inc. The club moved into the Vendome Hotel and then relocated to the top floors of the Citizens Bank building in 1960.

In 1970, it moved to the top of the Old National Building, where it has catered to Evansville's movers and shakers and out-of-town celebrities ever since.

Maitre d' Tommie Wilson, who started working at the Petroleum Club while it was at the Citizens building, recalled some of the club's more famous members and guests over the last several decades.

"We've had some doozies," said Wilson, one of 32 employees. "It was a lot of fun. A lot of camaraderie and excitement."

During the Tri-State's oil boom, the Petroleum Club was the epicenter of the area's business world. Ray Ryan and others who struck it rich in the region's oilfields were regulars and added an extra sense of glitz and glamour to the dining room.

"Someone might come in and say, 'Give everybody a drink. I'm buying,'" Wilson said. "They would say they just made $1 million and had to spend it before the tax man got it."

C.A. Robinson, president of Robinson Engineering, said he would meet others from the local oil industry once a week for lunch at the club during the 1970s. He also met with Old National Bank's loan committee at the club once a week when he served on the bank's board of directors.

"There's not any place like it now," said Robinson, who still made weekly visits to the club. "It's a good place to do business. If I have somebody I want to impress, I take them to the Petroleum Club."

Membership wasn't limited to those involved in oil and gas. By the 1960s, the members were evenly split between oil and other industries.

Banquet Director Charles Evans, who was hired to bus tables in the late 1970s, said there was high demand for a lunchtime seat at one of the club's four "power tables" on the 17th floor. The seats usually were occupied by the likes of department store titan Merritt deJong, Old National Bank chairman Walter A. Schlechte and oilman Ira Van Tuyl.

"You'd see all kinds of deals," Evans said. "If you weren't here at 11 o'clock, you had to wait for a seat. This was where the power was at."

But, Evans said discretion was the rule among the club's staff.

"You never, ever repeated what you heard at a table," he said. "It was totally discreet. Then, the motto was 'Service is silent.'"

Wilson remembers serving the likes of stars and athletes, including Tom Jones, Roosevelt Grier, Yogi Berra and Roger Staubach.

"Once you got over the fear factor, you realized these were nice people," Wilson said. "They relax like you do. They eat like you do."

Wilson said he prided himself on the club's service and knowing each member by name. Wilson's goal was to recall each member's name. With membership lists that topped 900 people some years, it could be challenging.

"It's the members that really make the club," Wilson said. "Our job is to cater to them and be there for them."

Robinson said Old National's move to a new headquarters near the riverfront was likely the major factor in the club's closing. Without the bank, the building now sits largely empty.

"People just aren't going there enough," Robinson said. "When Old National moved out, that cut out a lot of the executive accounts."

Recently, organizers felt they could bring the club's membership up to about 700. In 1999, club members became the owners after Country Clubs of America operated it for nearly 30 years.

O'Connor credited the board of governors and chairman Alan Shovers for working to keep the organization alive after the return to a member-based ownership.

"The clubs that are doing well are in the bustling business districts," O'Connor recalled Country Club of America officials saying. "It was an extremely tough market."

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