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CMU students unwind after a long day of thinking at the PHI — for now

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Even brainiacs need a bar they can call their own.

At Carnegie Mellon University, the Panther Hollow Inn has served that purpose. It's a place where CMU's academically ambitious students long have gone to relax, sip a cold brew and discuss how they built intelligent mobile automations capable of playing poker and smoking cigars for their Robotics 101 midterm project.

So the reaction wasn't positive when word got out that this legendary watering hole, on Forbes Avenue within easy stumbling distance of campus, was planning to close at the end of May. The PHI, as students refer to it, has since won a reprieve — but only a temporary one.

“What's that old saying? Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” said PHI owner Eugene DePasquale, 57, of McCandless.

But reports of the bar being on borrowed time?

“If I had to say now, I'd say we'd be closing for good in June (2014),” he said. “But who knows what happens between now and then?”

DePasquale's name might sound familiar because he is the son of the late former Pittsburgh City Council President Eugene “Jeep” DePasquale and uncle of Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. The PHI has been in the DePasquale family for 40 years, and Eugene DePasquale (the one who isn't the former city council president or current state auditor general) said he has owned the bar for the past two decades.

Unfortunately, he doesn't own the building housing it.

The property is being sold to an as-yet unknown buyer. Rumors that the university is purchasing the nondescript, two-story structure, which abuts the footprint of a campus expansion plan, were unfounded.

The building's owners initially wanted the PHI to remain open only through the summer, but that wouldn't have worked for DePasquale.

“I lose money during the summer because there aren't any students around. It's like trying to sell ice cream on the Jersey shore in January,” he said. “So I was preparing to close at the end of May when they said I could have another year.”

Will Weiner doesn't build robots, but the CMU student body president has a double major in economics and statistics and decision science, so you know he's smart. The graduating senior said he wouldn't be surprised if a grassroots effort by students and alumni continues to try to keep the bar open.

“It's very much of a cultural institution,” he said. “It's really our one place to go, and I think we have sort of a sense of ownership of the place. It's a rite of passage — when you turn 21, you go there and enjoy the cheap drinks and really good food.”

DePasquale said he is grateful for the backing of the CMU community. He expressed amazement that an online petition calling for the bar to remain in business has garnered more than 800 electronic signatures.

The brainiacs don't want to lose the bar they call their own.

“I'm overwhelmed by all the support,” DePasquale said. “I'm swimming in a lot of emotions right now.”

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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