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Neil Cronin, the popular former owner of John - Zeke's Bar in Healdsburg, has died. He was 51.

Cronin's family said he died April 18 at his Healdsburg home after a nearly yearlong battle with cancer.

Cronin, a New Jersey native who moved to Healdsburg in the late 1990s, had become a town fixture as the proprietor and often bartender at John - Zeke's, a major supporter of the Boys - Girls Club and a volunteer coach with Healdsburg High's track and field team.

"If you were his friend, he was loyal to you forever," said Mark Gleason, a close friend and former mayor of Healdsburg who met Cronin the day he opened John - Zeke's in 1997. "And everybody was a friend of Neil's."

Cronin was managing a Planet Hollywood when he and a partner bought the landmark Healdsburg bar, which under various incarnations had been located on a prime spot on the historic Healdsburg Plaza since it first opened in 1933.

But two years ago, the building sold. Cronin was faced with having to close the bar by October of last year. Cronin, who retained the John - Zeke's name and its fixtures, was coordinating the bar's move to a new location when he was diagnosed with advanced throat cancer in July.

"He knew it was bad from the beginning; we all did," said Rob Lippincott, the chef/owner of Parish Cafe who was among many business owners who called Cronin a mentor and friend. "He said he was going to fight and he fought it hard, but he also taught us a lesson in how to face this with grace and dignity."

Cronin was credited with helping to save the local chapter of the Boys and Girls' club when it was having financial difficulties in the late '90s.

A high school pole vaulter, Cronin shared his expertise as a volunteer coach for the Healdsburg High track team, where he was beloved as much for his teaching skills as his personality.

The team had T-shirts made that read "Everything with a smile" to honor Cronin, said head coach Chris Puppione.

"He didn't hide the fact that he was sick from the kids," Puppione said. "They've responded really well, and I think that's because he was so honest. They learned something from this experience and from Neil being so strong."

The town rallied to his side in September, putting on a fundraiser that raised $150,000 to help cover medical bills.

"He didn't want us to do anything for him," said longtime friend Craig Harrington. "He was embarrassed by the attention. But we had to do something."

Friends said Cronin used his last months to be with family and friends and travel with his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah Mae.

"He found peace," said Lippincott. "And he got a chance to say good-bye to the people he loved."

Cronin took his daughter on trips to Disneyland and Hawaii and, two weeks before he died, attended a track and field practice so he could coach one last time.

Cronin also helped oversee the move of John - Zeke's to its new location at 420 Healdsburg Ave., and the transfer of ownership to two longtime employees. He attended the opening in early January.

Neil Cronin was born July 27, 1962 in Ridgewood, N.J., one of four children of Jay and Joan Cronin. A graduate of Ridgewood High School, Cronin went on to Lyndon State College in Vermont where he ran a bar out of his dorm, according to a story he loved to tell.

It was an experience, friends said, that started him in the food and beverage business and cemented his dream of owning a bar.

He worked for various hotels and restaurants, including a stint in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he met his wife, Valorie.

An avid golfer, Cronin held two charity tournaments each year, including the Cronin Christmas Classic at Tayman Park. He would dress as Santa Claus and awarded a can of spam to the tournament's winner.

Besides his wife, Valorie, and daughter Hannah Mae, Cronin is survived by his sisters Kristin of Steamboat Springs and Kerry of Ridgewood; and his sister-in-law Rachel Coons of Healdsburg.

A vigil is planned tonight at 7 at St. John's Catholic Church in Healdsburg. Services are scheduled for Friday at 11 a.m., also at St. John's.

You can reach Staff Writer Elizabeth M. Cosin at 521-5276 or elizabeth.cosin@pressdemocrat.com.