Jim Papa surveyed the crowded room from the middle of the floor and watched as his old friends clapped each other on the back and guffawed at one another’s jokes. As years of absence were erased with a warm greeting, Papa expressed a sentiment felt by each of the old timers who poked fun at their gray hair and wrinkles.
“It’s great to see these guys,” Papa said. “They tell you old stories and make you laugh. It’s like reliving your childhood.”
A generation of men who once called Forest Park home gathered around a buffet lunch at the corner of Hannah and Adams streets Monday to make up for lost time. More than 80 of these guys, between the ages of 60 and 75, were called together in the hopes of getting reacquainted after so many years. One by one, marriage, careers, war and life in general pulled all of these men from the community they grew up in, and now Papa is one of only four in the group still living in Forest Park.
Don “Clutch” Clausen lives in northwest suburban McHenry and together with a few friends started contacting neighborhood buddies a few years ago. As the story goes, an obituary notice prompted the urge to reconnect and Clausen found himself taking the lead on what would grow to become a very elaborate phone tree. People who have since moved from the tree lined streets of the village drove all the back from Florida and Arkansas to have lunch with guys named “Clutch” and “Whitey.”
“We’re at that age and we want to see some of these people again,” Bob “Whitey” Whited said. “I don’t know everybody here but I know most of them.”
Over the last two years the group has met a handful of times at different restaurants in Illinois, slowly picking up old friends as word spread. The gathering on Monday was the first time everyone returned to Forest Park.
Lou Kueltzo, now 72 and living in Aurora bounced around the room telling stories about quarts of Bullfrog Beer and pickup games in the park. Gene Foxen, a Chicago resident these days, remembers swiping his dad’s accordion and retreating to the backyard where he and his friends would amuse each other with songs. When Al Malwitz was a boy he used to work in his father’s bakery on the 900 block of Beloit Avenue.
Marino Guardalabene said his wife is growing jealous of this fountain of youth he’s discovered hanging out with old pals.
“My wife said, ‘when are we going to get the ladies to come,'” Guardalabene said. “I said, ‘never.'”
Growing up in the 1940s, the village was dominated by German and Italian names. Whited joked that he’s the only Catholic in the bunch and that everyone else is Lutheran. Most families walked to church on Sundays with their neighbors and people who lived on the south side of town knew people on the north side.
“You married somebody down the block,” Ed Lambke, a former village commissioner said. “That’s the way it was.”