By Clark Fair
Joanna Hollier, Peggy Arness and Shirley (Dennison) Henley were sitting down to one of their usual Thursday lunches back in 1996 when inspiration struck.
The three women, who had been friends since the late 1940s and had been lunching together since the early ’90s, had begun to lament that they rarely saw many of the people they homesteaded with.
They were tired of the notion that “the only time when we see each other is at funerals. When one of us dies, that’s when you see everybody,” Arness said. They sought a way to reunite area old-timers “when we weren’t feeling bad that someone had left us.”
Since they regularly shared their Thursday lunches with any old friends who happened to drop by, Hollier wondered aloud why they didn’t simply expand their operation. They could have a really big lunch and invite everybody, she said.
And so the Old-Timers Lunch was born.
With the help of Donnis Thompson and others, Arness and Hollier went immediately to work on plans to make their new idea a reality. They concocted the notion of an annual dinner, with “comfort food,” attended by as many old-time central peninsula residents as possible.
They arranged to use the Kenai Senior Citizens Center and started making lists of old-timers they wanted to attend. They also kept the “Thursday” part of their tradition, deciding on the third Thursday of August in order to get local families through the commercial fishing seasons, to slip in before hunting seasons were in full swing, and to wait, as Arness put it, for a time when the “fly-by-nights are gone and heading south.”
The result of their efforts has been a rousing success. Last week’s get-together marked the 12th anniversary of the luncheon.
By 11 a.m. Thursday, the dining area of the Kenai Senior Citizens Center was already beginning to fill with old-timers meeting and greeting each other. By the time lunch was served, more than 200 people from all over the central Kenai Peninsula were seated at more than 30 tables.
Guests chatted over a meal of turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce and iced tea, with pumpkin pie for dessert.
It has become a tradition at the luncheon to name all of those in attendance, and also all the old-timers who have died since the last time everyone got together. Arness read the first list, while Thompson read the second as the room grew increasingly quiet. Thompson’s list included 101 names this year; 95 names were on the 2007 list.
Next, Arness gave her audience clues to a “mystery guest” — somebody, she said, “who is truly an old-timer, somebody who is quiet and not in the news all the time” — and called upon her audience to guess the person’s identity. This year’s mystery guest was George Pollard of Kasilof.
The luncheon wound down just before 2 p.m., after a couple of sing-along musical selections — “Auld Lang Syne” and “God Bless America” — and then guests dispersed to the overflowing parking lot to head home.
Each year now, Hollier, Arness and Thompson seek to improve on their product. This year, special servers wearing white “We’re the Kids” aprons attended to all the guests. The servers, mostly in their 50s themselves, were all children of area old-timers.
This year’s servers included members of the Dennison, Navarre, Arness, MacLane, Johnson, Hutchings, Farnsworth, Poore and Lofstedt families.
“Everybody that comes seems to enjoy themselves,” Arness said. “I think it’s a great thing.”
Planning for next year’s luncheon has already begun, and the three women are already trying to think of ways to bring even more old friends to the table.