Sunday, July 25, 2004

Thursday confabs meld into faithful fellowship

By William Croyle
Enquirer contributor

Joe Stein (left), 74, of Erlanger, Richard Zirkelbach (center), 66, of Erlanger, and Bill Schmaedecke, 68 , of Crestview Hills, share a laugh during a weekly Thursday meal the retirees hold at the Stringtown Bar and Grill in Florence.
FLORENCE - Bill Schmaedecke tells his friends about a war memorial he found in Ohio that includes the name of his great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran.

"But do you know what?" he says with a look of disbelief. "It's misspelled! Now how do you misspell a name like Schmaedecke?"

The friends burst into laughter, a key ingredient in their camaraderie.

Sitting at the round, corner table on this Thursday morning in the Stringtown Bar and Grill are Charles Kuhn, 78; Joe Stein, 74; San Juan Romero, 72; Tom Mentrup, 68; Schmaedecke, 68; Richard Zirkelbach, 66, and Norman Steinhilber, 62.

It's where Romero and Zirkelbach have met every Thursday for breakfast since they retired as air traffic controllers almost 14 years ago. The others joined them throughout the years and rarely miss a week.

"We solve the world's problems," said Romero. "It's a way to get together and catch up. It's fellowship."

Aside from Schmaedecke - a retired Kenton County judge - the others worked at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Kuhn was an engineer. Stein was a purchasing agent. Mentrup was the police chief. Steinhilber was a captain in the fire department. Though their jobs were vastly different, it was at a time when the airport was small enough that everybody knew everybody. They all retired within a few years of each other in the early 1990s.

With almost 500 years of life experience among them, there is never a shortage of things to talk about - and never a shortage of laughs.

They get to the restaurant at the corner of Main and Youell streets about 10:30.

"But we're usually gone by noon," said Mentrup. "Old people can't stay out too long. We've got to go home and get naps."

They talk about anything and everything, with no logical order to the topics. And rarely is there more than one conversation going on at once. They listen to each other, offering opinions and advice.

On this day, they discuss DHL leaving the airport for Ohio, followed by Stein's wife's eighth-grade reunion he went to the previous weekend. Kuhn talks about Indians wanting land in Ohio for casinos, then asks "Where can a person get rid of an old window air conditioner?"

Someone brings up the name of the late Howard Hughes, aviator and billionaire. Steinhilber says he bought Hughes' accordion at a flea market 20 years ago, then wonders out loud if Hughes ever played the accordion. But it does have Hughes' name on the case, he says.

"That's the Howard Hughes Accordion Company," quips Mentrup, followed by a chorus of laughs.

While these men and one or two others are here every week, they've had as many as 20 in the past. Some are friends in other professions in the area. "Whoever's got time, if they can make it, they come," said Romero.

The list of topics grows - their gray hair, health problems, part-time jobs that a few of them have to keep busy. Some issues are discussed for a minute or less. Others go longer. One subject that seems to be missing is politics.

"We don't talk politics when the press is around," said Zirkelbach.

When asked if they are married, six of them say yes. Then they become quiet as somber looks appear on all their faces. For the first time, the laughter has stopped. One of them says Kuhn's wife just passed away.

"A little more than a month ago - June second," says Kuhn. "Her name was Chella."

Then it's Kuhn who resumes the smiling after looking around the table at six of his closest friends. "You better believe this is special to me," he says nodding his head. "Yes it is."


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