THE IGA BREAKFAST CLUB

Published in The Asbury Collegian student newspaper in the Fall of 2013

A mere thirty minutes after opening its doors for the day, Fitch’s IGA buzzed with community and the smell of drip-coffee. Fresh, homemade donuts lined the top of the deli bar; sausage, egg and cheese biscuits wrapped in tin foil sat in the makeshift buffet line behind the deli counter. Strangers to this community and this early hour of the morning, my group of friends hesitated by the counter, unsure if we were supposed to help ourselves or if an IGA worker would wait on us. “Come on back here and help yourselves!” a friendly IGA worker said. We nodded and, after a moment more of polite hesitation, started for the delicious smelling breakfast.

After paying for our food at the front register, we took a seat near Wilmore’s own “breakfast club” — a group of older men who meet every morning at IGA for breakfast. The breakfast club has been around, in essence, ever since there have been small towns. As the generations move through the quiet town of Wilmore, Kentucky from birth to death, the breakfast club changes and renews itself like a phoenix rising from ashes.

Laura Roland, a woman who has worked at Fitch’s IGA for the past 18 years, said that the current breakfast club members have been meeting there every morning since before 2006.

There are two distinct groups of men at IGA—two breakfast clubs.

“They’re segregated,” Roland laughed. She said the retired ministers and professors tend sit in the back by the food and the farmers mostly sit at the small table near the front of the store.

According to Roland, the men usually arrive at the store at 7 a.m. and stay until about 8:30 a.m. “Except on rainy days the farmers stay longer—sometimes through lunch,” she noted.

It was drizzling and gray outside. The farmer table looked content to sit until the crops were sufficiently watered. They were quiet — enjoying the rain sliding down the store windows. They sat in their work-jeans and boots with their arms folded.

The back table of ministers and professors provided quite the contrast. The men greeted every person who walked past them. “You ladies back so soon?” one man said as we walked back to the table from paying for our breakfast. All the men at the table smiled. Their deep-bellied laughter shook the tables and coffee mugs.

A couple weeks later, I returned, alone, to the same scene on a nearly identical drizzling day. I bought two long johns with chocolate icing and then asked the men who comprised the back-table breakfast club of ministers and teachers if I could have a seat with them.

Charlie Denger, an elderly gentleman with frost-colored hair and wrinkles deep enough to hide loose change in, sat across from me and quickly identified himself as the comedian of the group. Every few minutes he would crack a joke with a completely straight face. Everyone laughed; every now and then you could hear a half-serious warning from one of the men: “Now, Charlie…”

The Wilmore breakfast club has been convening in some form or another for 46 years. Cecil Zweifel, a former Asbury University baseball coach, is one of the oldest surviving members. He knows the history of this early morning gathering.

He said they originally met for breakfast every morning in downtown Wilmore. Over the years they bounced from restaurant to restaurant. Eventually the different places closed and the men found themselves holed up in Fitch’s IGA.

Zweifel pointed out photos of different former group members who have passed away. This arrangement of picture frames hangs above their little table area in the back corner of IGA. The men call this the “wall of fame.” Mr. Denger, the comedian, joked that the reverse side of the wall, part of IGA’s storage area, is the “wall of shame” where most members’ photos really go after they pass away.

All jokes aside, there was a certain sadness I could sense in the men as they remembered the friends who once laughed and talked politics with them — friends who had sat in the same seat at the same table, ordering the same breakfast and telling the same jokes every morning for years.  Zweifel showed me the pictures of all the club’s fallen comrades and said something kind about each one of them.

Another member, Dean Cook, sat to my left and filled me in on how things run at the breakfast club. Cook said that the men in the group look out for one another. If someone is in the hospital, they go visit him. If someone needs money for a good cause, they all chip in. “There’s no  ‘leader,’ it just happens,” he said.

Cook said that before their breakfast club started up, there was likely one that came before it. He said this type of community is a vital part of small-town life. It helps spread information and spans the whole community. Cook mentioned that there’s a lot of diversity in their group.

Men from all sorts of different professions join together every morning and discuss the issues. There are farmers, veterans, professors, artists, and many others. Cook believes that the diversity of knowledge represented by the group is a big help to the Wilmore community. If somebody in the community has a question, they go to the breakfast club. “Somebody here will know,” said Cook.

The men who compose Wilmore’s breakfast club are far along in years, but their legacy of knowledge and discourse, laughter and jokes will live on as new generations continually refresh this small-town tribe.