Buhl members

Buhl Community Recreation Center’s “Coffee Club” members are pictured in a parking lot at Buhl Park. Left to right: Pong Woo, Tom DeMarco, George Chomos, Joe Szakach, Thomas “Tucker” Snyder and Jack Banick, with his dog Gracie.

HERMITAGE – During the current coronavirus crisis, no one has dealt with social distancing better than this group.

Call them the Buhl Club’s “Coffee Club.” Or better, a “Band of Brothers.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered non-essential businesses such as Buhl Community Recreation Center, a group of approximately a dozen members opted out – as in, outdoors – by making the most of the situation. They’ve been enjoying exercising and socializing – from a safe distance, to be sure – in beautiful Buhl Farm Park.

Approximately 5 or 6 days per week the group of graceful seniors short-circuit stress by circumnavigating the jewel of the Shenango Valley. All that’s missing is the coffee.

Pre-pandemic, the group would congregate daily in the BCRC’s snack bar to enjoy some good-natured camaraderie and caffeine before embarking on their workouts in the Evans Wellness Center.

In the new venture, their designated “leader” is 91-year-old Thomas “Tucker” Snyder, who, with a smile scoffed, “I’m in charge of nothin’ They’re just bein’ nice to me, ‘cause I’m old. ... They go ‘round the outside (of the park); I go ‘round the inside – and I end up in the same place.”

“Nobody wants to be in charge of this group,” a cackling call came from behind him, adding, “But we all want to grow up to be like Tucker.”

The BCRC “brothers” bonded before social distancing and quarantine became part of the country’s lexicon.

“Oh, yeah. Great group of guys! I’ll tell you what: They’re the type of guys, if you ever needed somebody for help, they wouldn’t even question what for; they would be there, believe me. And I would do the same for them,” related Ken Warrender, 75, of Brookfield, who with a smile quipped, “We’re just hopin’ that when the (BCRC) opens back up that they won’t cancel the coffee club, you know?”

The key to inclusion in this club is to check one’s ego before entering the park’s premises. 

“We are a lovable bunch,” wise-cracked 74-year-old Brookfield resident George Chomos, who helped organize the outings. “But,” Chomos added more seriously, “we practice social distancing, six-to-eight feet apart. Normally we get six-to-ten guys here, depending. But a lot of nice guys up here. You see people walking ... “

“Hey, ‘Soupy’! Good to see you, Reverend (Campbell)!” group member Bill Chavara called out, before Chomos resumed,

“We get out in nature ... and kind’ve ‘crack’ on each other. Oh, it gets you in a good mood, just to relieve some stress. And,” added a chuckling Chomos, “a lot of the wives love it. I was gone for five hours at the Buhl Club (pre-coronavirus crisis shutdown). It’s good for the marriage.”

“George’s wife tells him in the morning at seven a.m., ‘Leave the house, and don’t come back ‘til afternoon!’” a cackling Chavara quipped, before also noting. “Hey, Leo (Scott) got a haircut. That’s the big news. ... and not a hair outta place.”

Some exercise, fresh air and networking with friends are the brothers’ benefits from Buhl Farm Park. But as Chavara pointed out, “More than anything, it’s the politics. We won’t discuss who we like, but our blood pressure sure rises.”

“We all gargle with Lysol before we start,” Chomos chimed in.

Jack Banick, 65, of Sharon said, in spite of one interruption, this has been an 8-week, almost daily 2 1/2-to-3-mile walk in the park. 

“This is our ‘coffee club’ from the Buhl Club. Some of us backed off for a couple weeks because of all the (social distancing) warnings out there. But George and Pong (Woo) pretty much kept it up the whole time,” explained an admiring Banick, who related, “And – truthfully – we do it for the exercise, but mainly, socially, ‘cause we all miss getting together. But since this pandemic started, we all still call each other and keep in touch.

“George is the ‘ringleader.’ Whether we’re walkin’ or not, he gets the daily weather report ... and Pong knows all the women.”

“Every woman goes flocking right to Pong!” a chuckling Chavara echoed.

“I don’t know about that,” the smiling, yet startled, Woo winced. “I just come here, happy to see everybody and help myself by walking. Yes I do (miss the BCRC), yes! We talk about the Buhl Club, whenever I see people, they’re from the Buhl Club,” added Woo, 70, of Pymatuning Twp.

“ ... We do have one lady in the group,” quipped Banick, gesturing toward his 4 1/2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever Gracie, who “pulls me up (Kite) hill. I bring her every day, and all the guys like her, so she loves that!”

Warrender walks around Lake Julia – “every day, nine-thirty in the morning. ... I can’t go as far as those guys do, around the whole perimeter (of the park) ... “

And that is impressive, considering his back-story.

“May the tenth, two-thousand and seventeen, I had a liver transplant (stricken with Agent Orange),” related Warrender. “I was in the hospital for the better part of seven months.  ... They didn’t think I was gonna make it, but, boy, I fooled them! The doctor told my wife to get the clergy ‘cause it didn’t look good; they were gonna give me the last rites (of the Catholic faith) – and here I am!”

Previously, Warrender was a competitive road runner for 20 years – “thirty-seven marathons ... I don’t know how many half-marathons ... and 10-K’s and 5-K’s” – and also competed in dirt-bike racing for 22 years, winning a 1989 national championship while canvassing 11 or 12 states.

“ ... Had a lot of fun, but broke a lot of bones,” he quipped, while more seriously noting that his pandemic-driven increased daily walks have expedited his healing process.

“Oh, absolutely! No doubt about it. ... it’ll come, it’ll come,” he said regarding a return to health, while emphasizing with determination, “I’ll be glad to get rid of this cane.” 

While speaking from the bridge spanning Lake Julia in front of Buhl Farm Park’s picturesque casino, Warrender, while glancing at his watch, estimated the remainder of the group would return in  “ ... ‘bout six minutes ... “ Right on schedule they appeared near the conclusion of their 55-minute jaunt.

Other regulars in the group include Art Chambers (who missed the workout on this particular day, owing only to a doctor’s appointment), Tom DeMarco, Vic Francis, and 80-year-old Joe Szakacs. 

“The only person we’re missin’ is the ‘mailman,’” Banick said, referencing the ubiquitous Marc Gargano, a 3-plus-decade postal service employee, who works by day, but then completes as many as 5 circuits of the park on his bicycle each afternoon.

But Banick, in spite of Gargano’s absence, reassured, “We get a call from him a couple times a week.”

As with Woo, Szakacs is a daily fixture in the BCRC pool under normal circumstances. The youthful-looking Woo will swim at least a mile per day, sometimes more. Meanwhile, the slender Szakacs, regarding the extra roadwork, related, “I am losing weight, even though I don’t want to; I guess, because I’m doing what I didn’t used to do.”

When an observer pointed out that he, too, wished he could lose weight, Szakacs said, “and other people, probably, too,” while also admitting he misses the benefits of BCRC’s pool and its healing waters. 

While not as animated as some club members, DeMarco did not hesitate when asked if he has been enjoying the routine.

“I’ve been havin’ a great time with it. I’m not as consistent as George and some of the others are, but I try to come when I can come, and I always feel better when I exercise,” observed DeMarco, 66, another Brookfield resident.

For all of his fun-loving, free-spirited nature, in a more serious moment, Chavara related, “When (the pandemic) started we had a pretty good crew. Then the (social distancing) scare came and we went down to two or three (walkers). My doctor said, ‘Avoid it.’ But then after that, I started comin’ back down (to the park) wearing a mask. Now, nobody wears a mask. But,” he emphasized, “we do keep that six-to-eight feet apart.”

Warrender waxed nostalgic when the Buhl Club was broached. He proudly pointed out he has been a member for “sixty-eight years! I used to come to the Buhl Club ... when I first started it was fifty cents a month, and if you didn’t have the fifty cents, you still got in(to the club). I’ll tell you, it was unbelievable! We’d come after school, and then on Saturdays we pretty much lived there. We’d come to the Buhl Club Saturday morning, go home and eat, then St. John’s pool on Saturday nights cost twenty-five cents to swim. So we’d go down there, leave the swim(ming pool), go back to the Buhl Club, and go see the movie – they had a movie every Saturday night, free popcorn and all.”

Everyone is eager for a return to some form of normalcy, and for this particular group that means its beloved BCRC.

In a subdued tone, Banick admitted regarding the spry Snyder, “Probably, I think the Buhl Club closing hurt him the most of all – the social part of it; not the exercise, but the social part. And, really, for me, I think the social part, too. I miss seein’ these guys. This is the same crew you see at the nine o’clock hour at the Buhl Club (for coffee).

“Just hope some day soon we get back down there,” concluded Banick, brightening as he bent down to caress Gracie.