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Community supports popular Astoria bartender in battle with Hodgkin lymphoma

The tightknit Astoria community rallied around popular Sweet Afton bartender Stewart Whalley when they found out that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
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A popular Astoria bartender is preparing for the fight of his life…with a lot of help from his friends.

They say what goes around comes around. And that proved to be true when it came to the outpouring of love and support Stewart Whalley got from Astoria’s tight-knit bar community and other compassionate locals, after finding out he had Hodgkin lymphoma over the summer.

The charming Manchester, England, native, known affectionately as Stu, has been a friend to many and a well-known fixture in the hip neighborhood, calling it home since relocating to Queens back in 2009 from Manhattan’s West Village, where he had tended bar for several years.

Sweet Afton, at the corner of 34th Street and 30th Avenue in Astoria, had just opened its doors, and Whalley happily agreed to come on board when an owner asked him to tend bar there.

“Stu is one of a kind, an all-around solid guy. He’s been with us eight years, from the day we turned the key and opened Sweet Afton in 2009. Everybody loves him. He knows everyone’s name and he doesn’t consider his patrons as customers; he considers them as friends,” said co-owner Ruairi Curtin, before Whalley had completed his final shift there last week. Curtin also runs The Bonnie in Astoria and The Penrose on the Upper East Side.

To become a good bartender, one must possess a special skill set. Above all, you must be a good listener and a people person, and while pouring spirits, you should have the ability to lift spirits as well. Having a sense of humor, along with great story-telling skills, is a plus. Those qualities earned the 39-year-old a big following in his community. He knew how to connect with customers and made each person feel special. Soon, Tuesdays at Sweet Afton were called “Stuesdays.”

Since Whalley’s diagnosis, the Astoria community has returned the love tenfold. On Oct. 9, well-wishers raised a glass to their beloved bartender at “Stu’s Ball.” The fund-raiser was hosted by Sweet Afton’s sister bar, The Bonnie (on 23rd Avenue), and all proceeds went to the cost of his medical care and to help him get by during the months he expects to be out of work for treatment. The evening featured a silent auction, raffle, special drinks and food.

“When we heard he’d been diagnosed, we knew we had to help. He’d do the same for anyone. We’re all in this together. We’re with him every step of the way,” said Curtin, who projects that proceeds from the event will be well over $30,000. The bar has already accounted for over $20,000 in food and drink sales alone, but totals from the live auction, silent auction, raffle, T-shirt and hat sales and individual donations are still being figured in, he noted.

“At first, I was in shock and taken aback by the amount of people that were there as we opened the doors. Ruairi said to me, ‘Stu, it’s not even 7:15 and look at the place!’ It was packed. That’s when this overwhelming feeling of humbleness set in. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, but one I don’t wanna have again for obvious reasons,” said Whalley, who returned to his hometown in England this past Sunday, where he will be undergoing treatment while living with his family.

Whalley’s medical crisis began when he noticed a lump in his neck in June. Then lymph nodes in his collar bone area gradually started to swell. Unfortunately, more have been found in different parts of his body, including his chest, abdomen and kidney.

After a needle biopsy in early September could not diagnose what type of lymphoma he has or which lymph node or area was causing his condition, his ear, nose and throat doctor then conducted an open biopsy to collect more samples for a diagnosis.

Medical bills have piled up. Due to a problem with his health insurance and the necessity for further tests and treatment, funds have far exceeded what is available to date.

Luckily, more than 603 people have contributed to a GoFundMe campaign, which has been in full swing for over two weeks, to help with current and future expenses. So far, $64,818 and counting, has been raised toward a $75,000 goal.

Touched by the community’s amazing support and the turnout at “Stu’s Ball,” Whalley said: “My eyes have been opened to a different outlook on life, people – humanity, really. With all the horrible events that have gone on in the last month in the world, people still came out on a wet, muggy Monday night in Astoria.

“It just shows that people still care for each other. The love that was in that room last night will be hard to find again.”

Posted 12:00 am, October 20, 2017
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Reader feedback

avidreader says:
Very touching story. Yes, there still is
heart and good in our society, and we all
should all hear about it more often.
Oct. 23, 1:27 pm

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