Why Crozet: Through Pandemic and Politics, Men’s Breakfast Group Endures

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The breakfast group has met for years with no set agenda but lots of good conversation. From left, Gerardo Di Gregorio, Bill Spicuzza, Jim Camblos, Brock Strickler and Don Wheeler. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

For the past few years, a handful of mostly retired men have met in Crozet weekly. Most of them are fairly close in age, ranging from the mid-70s to early 80s, and they presently meet at Green House Coffee. Some of them nurse a small coffee throughout the couple of hours they’re together; others load up on the café’s popular baked goods and breakfast sandwiches. 

Truly, though, the men are not really there for the food, or even the coffee. “The best part for me is that these are people my own age, who have the same issues in life,” said Jim Camblos. “It’s comforting to talk with them about work, health concerns and what’s going on in the world. We share a long history that’s sometimes forgotten.”

Camblos is a retired Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney. He and Bill Spicuzza started the group about five years ago when they both took an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) class that met in Crozet. One of the assignments was for pairs of class members to meet outside of class and share memories from their past. Spicuzza, a retired Army Colonel, said he found the meetings helpful and interesting. The two decided to continue to meet after the class was over, and each invited one or two carefully chosen friends to join them. 

They had no set structure or agenda, but eventually some logistics evolved. “We used to move around, changing times and places to suit everyone’s schedule, but it became too confusing,” Camblos said. “It works better when we meet on the same day and at the same time.”

Spicuzza sends out reminders every week to the 11 people who make up the informal roster. “Some only come occasionally, some are always here,” he said, “but there’s no obligation, as we all have busy lives and, at our age, medical appointments.”

Don Wheeler said he likes the free-wheeling nature of the conversation and also values the practical information shared by the group, especially during Covid, when everyone was trying to figure out how to cope. “Between us, we try to keep up on the news of the day and share anything that the rest of the group may have missed.” Wheeler, an energy consultant, often sends out emails during the week with links to topics relevant to their discussions, or of general interest. 

Even occasional members keep in touch between meetings, Spicuzza said, and he shares the health status and whereabouts of members who miss a week or several for any reason. It’s true that one or two potential members have not been a good fit, but they’ve recognized it themselves, so there hasn’t been any need to request someone to leave. “This group works best if it stays small,” said Tom Duke, who rejoined his friends after a short hiatus for knee surgery. 

Camblos said there have been disagreements at times, especially about politics, but the men have worked out ways to make sure it doesn’t get too personal. It’s a relief, he said, to have a place to talk freely without name-calling or negative assumptions. As for his part, he’s discovered he can still like those who have radically different ideas. Privately, members of the group have credited Spicuzza’s diplomatic skills with maintaining civility amidst controversy. 

There’s another reason the men talk freely in this space. They know that sensitive information won’t be shared, although it’s understood they may tell their wives unless asked not to. They mentioned that learning new ideas and keeping up with new developments is part of their goal in sharing individual impressions of local and world events. Brock Strickler said he enjoys the group, but doesn’t talk much. “I like to listen, mostly,” he said. 

The breakfast group is so woven into their routines that the men kept it going by Zoom in the early days of the pandemic. “I felt so sad that they couldn’t meet in person,” said Green House Coffee owner Camille Phillips. Later, as the weather warmed up, they brought folding chairs and set them up in the parking lot. After shots and boosters, they meet indoors, although a recent possible Covid exposure sent them outside on a mild day. 

“Either way, I’m always glad to see them,” Phillips said. 

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