‘Curmudgeons’ seek company, conversation in Easthampton

Last modified: Thursday, January 03, 2013

EASTHAMPTON — The group of white-haired men that meets in the basement of the Easthampton Council on Aging’s Enrichment Center call themselves the Easthampton Curmudgeon and Procrastination Society, but it’s not a support group for grumps and time-wasters.

It’s a men’s group that offers older men a little company and some lively, informal discussion, said leader Judson Brown, an outreach worker at the center. You don’t even have to be curmudgeonly, he added.

To start their November meeting, Brown, 64, suggested that members could share moderating duties at future meetings, but member Michael Sola, 72, piped up with an argument in favor of Brown keeping the job.

“You’re younger, so you’re less likely to pass out,” he said matter-of-factly, keeping a straight face while the others chuckled.

Not surprisingly, humor is a big part of their meetings. They tease each other, crack jokes about memory loss and refer to their cozy meeting room in the center’s basement as “the dungeon.”

Walter Kieszek, 89, who jokingly described himself as a “nice Polish boy,” thought briefly when Brown asked him why he enjoyed the group. “I just enjoy listening to you guys,” he said.

“How’s your hearing?” someone quipped.

“Terrible,” he replied, grinning, causing more laughter.

The nine men at a November meeting were mostly clad in flannel or checkered shirts, some were bespectacled and others sported hearing aids. No one’s cell phone went off during the meeting, no one Googled the answer to a question. They just talked. Sometimes, they trade paperbacks.

Brown said the group was born eight months ago, when 89-year-old Riley Street resident Robert Belliveau started rounding up fellow seniors to meet and talk about “whatever.”

Brown said topics have run the gamut from fishing, bowling alleys and logging to the more obscure, such as a recent conversation about a legendary Viking sword. They also discuss more serious subjects, like the war in Afghanistan and remembering friends who have died.

Kimberly Jensen, the Enrichment Center’s activity coordinator, said the Council on Aging has tried to run men’s groups before, but with little success.

“We’ve tried a variety of social clubs, some were more about doing outings, but we have a tough time getting men to join,” she said. “We’re thrilled to have a real men’s group now.”

At the center’s events and activities, she said, the women are the really social ones. “That’s why this is so necessary — the men are less social than the women,” she said. “I think having a man head it up helps.”

The ranks have been growing slowly since Belliveau and Brown launched it under the goofy name they came up with, and meetings average about 10 people.

On Nov. 8, Josef Ketelaar introduced himself because it was his first meeting. Though he is the newest member, he is also the oldest: 92.

“My wife died almost a year ago, so I am alone,” Ketelaar explained, speaking quietly with an accent from his native Germany. “So I contacted this group.”

He explained that he served in World War II and ended up in a Russian prison camp before he married and moved his family to Illinois in 1956. He lived all over the East Coast and finally moved to Easthampton in 2007 because his daughter lives in the area.

Then Brown suggested a topic that is usually taboo for the group: politics.

“I know Robert would say, ‘don’t talk about politics,’ ” Brown said of co-founder Belliveau. “But we just had an election.”

Frank Steplar wasn’t worried about broaching the subject. “The issue I see as a failure in this election is that we lost a true nonpartisan senator to a partisan senator,” he said, referring to Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren defeating Sen. Scott Brown. “We need to compromise, we need people willing to cross the aisle and talk.”

William Weber, 75, disagreed. “On the really important things, he voted Republican,” he said, although he added, “I say, a curse on both their houses.”

Polarized politics

The political discussion is rapid-fire, including disagreements, but you couldn’t call it heated. Robert McQuade, 78, said the election unseated “a few nuts” in the Midwest, Weber got a few laughs when he referred to state Attorney General Martha Coakley as a “little bulldog,” and Bruce Homstead, 70, called the massive campaign fundraising machines’ tax-exempt status “a bunch of hooey.”

One thing the group did agree on was that politics get more polarized every day.

“I’m concerned with labels, everything is black or white, left or right. I vote for ‘no labels.’ That makes me a curmudgeon, right?” Homstead said, smiling.

They touch on the state’s legalization of medical marijuana — most seem supportive — and the probable development of a casino in western Massachusetts. “I think it’s a sad day when casinos are seen as the only solution,” Steplar said.

After a few words about the Vietnam War and its effects, Brown wrapped up the 1½-hour discussion.

“We’ve been pretty civil, right? We’ve learned some things?” he asked.

He asked the men if they had any suggestions for topics for the next meeting, which is Dec. 13.

“Let’s just see where it goes,” Frank said, to nods from the others.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


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