Michael Costello Trant, 74, the unforgettable founder of Duffy’s Tavern, 7513 Madison St., died from cancer on April 19, 2021, leaving behind Shelia, his wife of 46 years, and his daughters, Tracy and Megan. His funeral urn was buried with two of his trademarks: a golf ball and a “Challenge Coin” from his days as a paratrooper.
Mike grew up in Oak Park and graduated from OPRF High School. He was drafted into the military in 1967 and served as a member of Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion of the 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Division in Viet Nam in 1967-68 and remained close with his comrades for the rest of his life. Five of them came from out of state to attend his funeral. He was buried with full military honors.
After he finished his military service, he met Shelia Duffy in 1974 at a Forest Park bar called The Ending. They were married the same year. In 1983, he purchased the building that houses Duffy’s and opened the pub in the late ’80s. It was named for his wife, and he was a natural to run an Irish pub.
His father emigrated from Listowel, Ireland and Mike was proud of his Irish-American heritage. He and Shelia went to Ireland many times and visited the family farm to meet his dad’s relatives. Like many Irishmen, he had a fondness for alcohol but quit drinking many years ago. This didn’t keep him from enjoying the company at Duffy’s.
The tavern had regular daytime customers. Many of them were in the trades. Among them was a plumber named Ed Walsh, who first met Mike 25 years ago. Ed had just finished a side job in River Forest and made his first visit to Duffy’s to see if his buddies were there. He asked for an Old Style and Mike replied, “I don’t think so. Your eyes look bloodshot.”
Ed explained that he had just finished a job and was looking for his friends. When he mentioned their names, Mike invited him to have a beer. Ed quit drinking two years later but continued to visit Mike at Duffy’s.
Mike and Shelia ran the place together until 1986, when their daughter Megan was born. Shelia concentrated on motherhood while Mike ran the bar. A gifted storyteller, he regaled the regulars with his tales. The place had a family feel and Mike certainly considered his workers to be family, especially the three Di Gilio sisters, Christine, Donna and Cathy.
Chris and Donna worked their way through college at Duffy’s and both became teachers. Chris started at Duffy’s in 1981 and worked there for 30 years. Mike would become like a brother to her and her sisters. He even invited Chris on three family vacations to Hawaii.
Family came first for Mike, followed closely by golf. He belonged to a golf league that played at Cog Hill. As Ed Walsh recalled, “Mike wasn’t going to make the Tour,” but he shot some excellent rounds. Golf remained his lifelong passion.
He was loyal to his golf buddies, his workers and his regulars. He gave some of his daytime customers keys to Duffy’s in case the bartender was late showing up. He may have been short in stature but he had a big personality. His great sense of humor attracted so many patrons, he had to hire a second bartender.
Although he lived in Elmhurst, he loved the action of Madison Street and got along well with his fellow bar owners. He became good friends with Mike Sullivan, who owns Goldyburgers. They once had a joint picnic for workers from Duffy’s, Goldyburgers and the Forest Tap.
He stopped operating Duffy’s in 2005. After he became ill, Chris continued to hang out with Mike. A few weeks before he died, Chris had her first-ever drink with Mike. He insisted on having “two fingers of whiskey.”
Claudia Frey was another longtime employee who remained close with Mike until the end. She first met Mike when he was in high school and grew to love him like the brother she never had. After he became ill, Frey, who is a registered nurse, visited Mike to assist with his health care. Other longtime pals drove Mike to and from his medical appointments. It was a pleasure for them, because it meant having an hour or so to talk with him.
If workers like Claudia and Chris were Mike’s sisters, the members of his military unit were his brothers. He attended their annual reunions, which were held all over the country. They had such a ball, the reunions would last several days.
Which brings us back to the Challenge Coin. If a paratrooper walks into a bar and brandishes his Challenge Coin, the other paratroopers have to produce their own. If a paratrooper doesn’t have his, he has to buy drinks for the whole bar. It’s easy to imagine Mike buying a round at Duffy’s while giving a sly wink to the crowd.