McHENRY – On the second Thursday of every month, the McHenry IHOP becomes more than a restaurant.
Since 2005, members of the Crystal Lake Community High School Class of 1951 gather for lunch, but if you ask them, they aren’t there for the pot roast and omelets.
Thursday was the group’s 100th consecutive meeting. It started in 2005 after founding member Jim Wells’ wife passed away. Wells, feeling a void in his life, wanted to gather friends together to reminisce about the old times and keep in touch with friends from long ago.
Six people showed up to the first meeting in January 2005. Over the years, the group has found more members from the Class of 1951. They found people from the classes before and after them. They brought their spouses and friends and, before they knew it, their IHOP lunches were filled with 30 – and sometimes 40 – people.
“It’s like a class reunion once a month,” the 79-year-old Wells said. “It’s a lot of fun. We really enjoy it.”
The monthly tradition has brought with it several smaller traditions. The group has had the same waitress each Thursday since their first lunch in 2005. They’ve written out a list of 11 rules for members to abide by, some of which include “Interact with those around you,” “Separate checks and tipping,” and, of course, “No age limit.”
IHOP waitress Christine Schaefer brings Russ Nolte, another founding member of the group, a surprise meal each time he comes in.
“One day I came in and I couldn’t make up my mind on what to order,” Nolte said. “Christine said, ‘You don’t have to.’ Since then, she’s always got something different for me.”
On Thursday, Schaefer helped the group celebrate its milestone by baking two cakes, and a sign was made marking the 100th lunch.
“They’re like my family,” she said. “I would not miss this day for the world.”
The group talks about high school football games and girls they used to date in high school. They swap war stories and talk about their medical issues. (They meet on Thursdays because that’s when people have the fewest doctor’s appointments.)
When Nolte retired, people told him that he needed to do three things: exercise your mind, exercise your body and socialize.
“This socializing helps all of us,” Nolte said. “I look forward to this more than anything.”
Of the regularly attending members, only two or three have died in the eight years since the group has been meeting, Nolte said. Many in the group point to the monthly lunches for keeping their minds strong and their spirits high.
The Thursday IHOP group will continue to meet “until they bury me in the ground,” Wells said.
They don’t have a Facebook group or an email list to remind people when to come. They won’t be checking into Foursquare once they arrive or tweeting their friends at the lunch table.
In fact, you won’t see a cellphone during the entire meal.
These members of the Class of 1951 believe that not only is there value in face-to-face relationships, but they might just prolong your life.
“This is something to live for and look forward to,” said Dick Aston, who has cancer and has been coming to each Thursday lunch since the third meeting in 2005.
“It’s kept me alive.”