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Longtime Companions

When Men of Leisure meet, it's more than just lunch.

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On a Wednesday in January shortly before noon, the parking lot at the Beverly Woods, a restaurant at 11532 S. Western, is filling with cars. Amid the compacts and SUVs, 14 or 15 four-door sedans arrive. Most are roomy and low-slung American models: Buicks, Cadillacs, and Fords, hallmark vehicles of an older generation. Some of the men emerging from these boats are as spry as they were 30 years ago; others grip canes and slowly shuffle to the entrance. They're members of Men of Leisure, a club with no dues, no agenda, and no special purpose other than to get these men out of the house once a week for lunch.

"After retirement, you want to keep busy," says Carl Spencer, two-time past president for the group. "Say you have a piece of china or crystal that your wife prizes, and you decide to polish it and you break it. OK, you grab a vacuum sweeper and you knock off a piece of furniture. That's when you sit down and say, 'Charlie, I married you for breakfast and dinner, but I didn't marry you for lunch.' You decide you've got to have a hobby.

"This [club] is a great help to the retiree who finds himself at home trying to manage things his wife has always taken care of," says Spencer.

Forty years ago, five men with similar concerns got together and formed Men of Leisure. The group first met at Mickelberry's, a log-cabin-style restaurant on 95th near Western that no longer exists. After five years they moved to Hoffman's Restaurant at 120th and Western, which is also out of business. For the last 25 years the group has met in a banquet room at the Beverly Woods. Sometimes they take a field trip--they've gone to the Chicago Board of Trade and to the former U.S. Steel plant in Gary--but the luncheon program with a featured speaker is more routine.

With new members coming in and old ones dying off, the composition of the club has changed. In the 1960s, there were around 40 members; now there are 20, Spencer says. "If you're lucky, you start out as the youngest member and you get to be the oldest," says Art Hartley, 87. Hartley, a retired steel salesman, has belonged to the group for 23 years, but he's not the oldest. The club has members in their 90s, though they come to meetings less frequently. It maintains a member list that includes birthdays, which are recognized, in song, as close as possible to the correct date.

In the Sunbeam Room, members take their seats at long tables draped in white linen and arranged in a giant horseshoe. Coffee flows rapidly in and out of cups, and the men can be heard calling out with regularity, "Hey, hon, when you get the chance, we need another pot."

Treasurer Bob Bruno, a large man with a loud presence, walks around the room with a small plastic tub. "I've come to collect," he booms. There are no dues; each man simply pays $8 for the buffet-style lunch. The tab includes a tip for the waitress, who delivers the coffee, rolls, and desserts.

Men are usually introduced to the club by invitation from a friend. Bob Eaton, 77, retired from a job quoting freight rates for railroads, was asked to join by Gene Knight, a fellow member of Morgan Park Baptist Church. "I like all of the programs," says Eaton. "I've enjoyed this for years. For me the time of day is convenient, because I can go, and then visit my wife, who's in a nursing home."

Most members are from the south side of Chicago, but others come from Evergreen Park, Homewood, Western Springs, Palos Heights, and LaGrange. A few are homebound but still receive calls and notices from the group. Two members reside out of state, in Madison and Indianapolis. All members are asked to serve six-month stints as president, which involves taking attendance, introducing the speakers, and keeping track of members.

It's customary to start meetings with a joke. For the last ten years Eaton has been the man to do this. Sometimes he passes out hard candy, but mostly he reads from a leather-bound copy of More Over Sexteen, a book of jokes published in 1953.

"What a day," Eaton reads. "I lost my job. I lost my billfold. My wife ran away with the electric-light man. The Yanks lost to the Senators. It's unbelievable. Leading by three in the eighth, and they lost to the Senators."

A ripple of laughter spreads over the group.

On other days, Eaton has read this joke: "A beautiful moon shone down on the parked car in which sat Gayle and her bashful boyfriend. 'Dear, you remind me of Don Juan, the great lover,' murmured Gayle. 'Why?' he asked, hopefully. 'For one thing, snapped Gayle, 'he's been dead for years.'"

That one probably got a good laugh too, Eaton said. "When men get old they forget. I can repeat the same joke. They don't even mind. They still think it's funny."

While club members may not pay close attention to the jokes, they do seem to keep close tabs on each other. At the November meeting an attendance poll revealed that only 14 men were present, and Clif Hullinger asked if anybody knew the whereabouts of the eight who were absent. Three may simply not have felt like coming, but the group provided specific answers concerning the remaining five. One man was visiting his sister, a nun who is in bad health. Another was in Florida, and another had gone to his cottage in Michigan. Another was on his way to Mexico for a vacation. The last man in question has bad hearing and may not have heard the message on his answering machine. A member of the group suggests, "Maybe we should write him a note."

Upon joining the club, members are asked to supply a snapshot and brief biographical statement. The bios vary in length, from half a page to two and three pages. Some include details of childhoods spent on farms with no electricity, even parents' family histories. Some elaborate on World War II experiences or struggles to pay for college, and offer only sketchy information about family life or careers in medicine or business that came later. Some speak more about the present--projects taken up in retirement, or time devoted to family or travel. Carl Spencer's bio recalls several competitive bike races, including a 25-day, 3,113-mile trip he took from New York to San Diego when he was 56. Spencer says it's just what each man chooses to say about himself that makes the documents invaluable.

When someone from the group dies, a collection is made for flowers or some other offering. But more important, Spencer, who maintains the club's archives, duplicates copies of the deceased club member's bio for ministers, funeral directors, family. "These are such a help," he says. "Sometimes people just don't know what to say about a person who has died. You can't believe how happy people are to get these. They really tell a lot about the man, and they really say what he thought was important in his life."

The speaker at this January 17 meeting is Jim Harris, a commissioner for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, who'll be speaking on water quality and treatment. Sometimes the club has its own members give presentations; past speakers include retired food chemist Hullinger, who gave a talk on DNA complete with flip charts and hand drawings, and member Dan Donegan, who still works as an education consultant and talked about the Chicago Public Schools. One week, Hullinger says, "we had the police in here talking about safety."

But even with the time taken up by the speaker, there's always plenty of banter. To maintain harmony, members are discouraged from discussing politics, religion, or physical ailments. "Which doesn't leave a whole lot, but we manage," says Spencer. Many discuss their families, current events, even previous meetings.

"Last week's program [the police safety talk] was very interesting," Pete Rakiewicz told the men seated at his table at a meeting not long ago. "My sister lives on Belmont. A guy broke the rear door in. She had to give all the money she had. Two hundred bucks! Now who's a hostage now?"

Other topics surface: the cost of gasoline, the weather, travel conditions, the health of spouses, the status of relatives and friends in nursing homes, the births of grandchildren, the graduation of grandchildren from college, the appointment of children as company presidents.

Conversations that start over coffee and soup often break off temporarily when the men get up to go to the buffet, which is in another room. For some of them the walk--down a hallway, around the salad bar and steam tables, and back to the Sunbeam Room--can be a bit arduous. Sometimes the more agile members offer to pick up lunch for their pals, but cane carriers like Hartley refuse. "No. No, thank you. This will give me the chance to walk without my cane."

The men joke about alternative names for their group: the Lazy Old Men Club, Men on a Leash. Eventually Hartley, the former steel salesman, makes his way back to the dining table and settles in with the others to enjoy his lunch and the talk on water treatment.

With images flashing from a slide projector, Harris reads from a script that explores such engineering marvels as the reversal of the flow of the Chicago River and the Deep Tunnel project. He also talks about the name change of the Chicago Sanitary District to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago in 1988, which he says resulted from pressure from women's groups who took exception to the word "sanitary." The information raises an eyebrow or two but a respectful silence prevails, possibly due to the presence of Harris's smiling administrative assistant, Deborah Simmons. As usual, the meeting ends promptly at 2.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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