Sean Sweeney could be best described as a jack-of-all-trades. He was a frequent restaurant manager, service-industry everything and expert carpenter. He held a passion for planting flowers and for sports, with a deep, almost spiritual love for the Washington Redskins.
Perhaps that range, and the ability to connect with others, was one of the keys to his popularity as a longtime Richmond bartender at such places as Metro, Vitello's, Southern Culture and Gumbo Ya Ya's.
"The thing about Sean is that it didn't matter who you were, he would always engage you," says Patrick Stamper, a longtime bartender and a partner in Mezzanine and Bellytimber Tavern. (Both places received the benefit of Sweeney's knowledge and design work on the interior and exterior, and Stamper says it "was and is integral to our success.")
"He was incredible at figuring out what you liked and then speaking with you about that topic for hours," Stamper says. "The guy was a walking encyclopedia, and he had this great ability to make everyone feel comfortable. A massive, gregarious personality, volatile at times, but always kindhearted. He rarely said no to anyone."
Sweeney, who died last week at age 45 of still-unknown causes, was the first bar manager that restaurateur Bob Cox worked with as a young owner in the industry.
"My partner had already hired him and he walked in the door thinking that he had the job," Cox recalls. "He didn't think he had to interview, but I sat him down and interviewed him anyways. I was just fucking with him."
Cox, smiling, goes on to say: "He wasn't one to wear his feelings on his sleeve. He was a larger-than-life personality, but he wasn't big into talking about his emotions. ... Well, unless the Redskins were losing — then he'd destroy everything in the room."
"The guy hardly had two nickels to rub together," Stamper says, smiling at the memory of his friend. "But when he did, he would never hesitate to buy a case of beer and some food, then invite everyone to his house. Throwing horseshoes and drinking Natural Light, for hours on end."
Sweeney touched a lot of lives in his short time on Earth. Whether it was through intense discourse or routine barroom ball busting, he seemed to have a knack for making people happy. His friends speak of an indefinable characteristic, a magnetic personality. It wasn't forced, there was no effort, no pretension. Sweeney was just someone you wanted to be friends with. Even his friends seemed hard-pressed to describe why they loved him so much.
"If you knew Sean, you got handmade cards — for everything," Stamper says. "Christmas, birthdays, thank-you notes. All handmade, all personalized. Who else does that?"
Maybe it's only the best bartenders, and only the greatest people, the rare ones, who have the ability to forge connections like this.
In a send-off fitting for a man such as Sean Sweeney, an old-fashioned Irish Wake will be held at Conch Republic, Rocketts Landing, 11 Orleans St., on Monday, May 30, at 4 p.m.