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MURPHYSBORO - With former President Bill Clinton set to undergo bypass surgery, patrons of the 17th Street Bar & Grill in Murphysboro said it probably has more to do with stress than his diet, which once famously included the grill's baby back ribs.

Chuck Ehrhardt, of Carterville, said if Clinton ate food from 17th Street every day, "he'd be healthy."

The former president was renowned for his appetite. The Murphysboro business, however, appeared to be a special favorite.

Clinton enjoyed its food during his visit to the region in 1995. The restaurant served up a feast of baby back ribs, barbecue, apple nut cheesecake and two baskets of apples for the president and his staff.

Josh Kruse has worked as a bartender at the grill for a year and he said it was part of his training to learn the facts of Clinton's visit.

Before Clinton's arrival in Southern Illinois, the president's advance team was told about a "famous barbecue place." The restaurant provided meals to Secret Service agents and media who were following the president to Carbondale. Later, it provided the feast of ribs and cheesecake to Clinton as he and his staff boarded Air Force One at Southern Illinois Airport.

On Friday, Kruse pointed out the memorabilia from Clinton's visit and said there is even a guest book - now put away in storage - signed by Clinton.

"Obviously, the man ate what he wanted to eat," Kruse said.

Kruse was only 12 at the time of Clinton's Southern Illinois trip and was living in Springfield. But he still hears the stories.

"He had stuff sent to the White House," Kruse said.

The president's famed culinary habits probably weren't the cause of his heart attack, said Stephen Mills, restaurant patron and a nephew of owner Mike Mills.

"The man probably has access to any kind of food he wants. You can't put that kind of stress on the heart and add extra weight," the Murphysboro chiropractor said. "Of course those cigars, you know… (they don't help)."

He pointed out the options of chicken and salads and a vegetable plate available. But on Friday afternoon, Mills and his brother, Rob Mills, were enjoying a plate of nachos and hamburgers.

"We eat here often and we have no health problems," Stephen Mills said.

While grilling up a storm at the Du Quoin State Fair, 17th Street owner Mike Mills said he hopes Clinton does well.

He remembers when Clinton came to speak, adding that the president's time was cut short because of the crisis in Bosnia. Because of that, Mills said he and staff members were allowed to take Clinton's food aboard Air Force One.

"Otherwise," he said, "He would've been sitting in 17th Street."

Clinton checked into a New York City hospital Friday after experiencing chest pains. An angiogram showed that Clinton, who turned 58 two weeks ago, had significant blockage in his heart arteries but did not suffer a heart attack, a doctor who performed the test told The Associated Press.

In January of this year, Clinton said he had cut out junk food after going on "The South Beach Diet" and starting a workout regimen. He has long struggled with a weight problem, but recently had appeared much leaner.

It was not clear when the surgery would be performed, but Clinton's wife, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said, "They did advise him to have bypass surgery, and to do it as soon as he could."

At Friday afternoon's groundbreaking ceremony for Morris Library at SIUC, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, announced his support for Clinton in his closing remarks.

"I'd ask you all to say a prayer for President Clinton," he said.

- The Associated Press and Andrea Marie Kampwerth contributed to this story.

kristen.cates@thesouthern.com 618-529-5454 x15804

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