Years ago, they were the politicians and the policemen, the newspaperman and the bank examiner, the high school football coach and the school superintendent. Now they are the Frederick Coffee Club, gathering six days a week for a half-hour, a $1.10 cup of joe and the solace of collective memory.
On Tuesday morning, Betty Huffer, who's poured the coffee for the past 30 years, was serving her red velvet sheet cake to honor those whose birthdays fall in April: Karl Manwiller, who turned 77 yesterday and was the first principal of Frederick's second high school, which opened in 1966; Jack Molesworth, 78, who was the high school football coach about the same time; and Dick Zimmerman, a youngster at 61, a lawyer and retired fighter pilot who's the 11th generation of his family to live in Frederick.
Fred Price, front, and Buddy Fogle leave a meeting of the Frederick Coffee Club, a gathering of mostly male residents that began in 1958. Joe Volz, the newest member, says they talk "about the Ravens, about who died, who's sick and what used to be in this or that building in town. For me, it's a great chance for eyewitness history."
(Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
Each man received a computer-generated birthday card with every member's photo inside, courtesy of Jack Tritt, former Frederick school administrator, Maryland assistant school superintendent and the group's electronic scribe. Then it was time for each of the three to rise and acknowledge the honor as those at the far end of the table strained to hear. "We ought to have one of them mic things," said Buddy Fogle, 71, who was a foreman at Frederick's C.C. Carty furniture store until it closed in the 1970s.
Outside the diner window, the historic retail district is the picture of change in the making, its passing pedestrians a parade of old and new. The old Snow White hamburger place just became the only Ethiopian restaurant to boast a sign that reads "Hamburgers, 5 cents"; a shop near the bank sells furniture and copper pots from India and Turkey; tourists and townies, tie-dyed and bow-tied, glance at this gathering of 14 elderly, well-dressed men.
They're missing Charlie Main. The police chief for nearly 25 years, Main founded the coffee club in 1958 and dominated it for 40 years. He died last month, a few weeks after the group celebrated his 95th birthday by having the January birthday meeting in the nursing home where he lived. Main was known as a storyteller, and one of his favorites was about a 1954 bank robbery that took place only a few blocks from here.
On a hot July afternoon, cars froze on North Market Street as a light blue Plymouth carrying the three bandits careened the wrong way down the main shopping thoroughfare, with two state police cruisers and a city squad car driven by Main speeding behind. The getaway car made it several blocks before it stopped.
Local lore has it that Main, chief of police for scarcely two years at the time, jumped from behind the wheel, dived across the hood of his car and knocked a revolver from the hand of one suspect who was aiming at one of the state troopers. If Main's fellow club members ever tired of this story, or doubted its particulars, they didn't let on.
The death of Main makes Bob McCardell, 91, the club's oldest member. He once traveled the country as a bank examiner, but he's lived in the house where he was born, on Rockwell Terrace near downtown, all his life.
His sister, Claire McCardell, was a renowned fashion designer who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1958, the year she died. He's given her work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, among other places, but can't bring himself to part with the house where they grew up. "I wouldn't live anyplace else, but I would rather this place were a little smaller," he said. The coffee club, he said, "is therapy for us."
"This is not the most articulate group, kind of a men's version of a support group," said the coffee club's newest member, Joe Volz. He moved here from the District two years ago because "I wanted to come to a real town." He writes a column in the Frederick News-Post. Most members live alone or care for ailing spouses, but "they're a little too proud to talk about these things," said Volz, 70. Mostly they just talk, he said, "about the Ravens, about who died, who's sick and what used to be in this or that building in town. For me, it's a great chance for eyewitness history."
When Volz first came to town, he was told the group would never let a "newbie" join. "But I went in and they said, 'Have a seat.' " Some non-members have criticized the group's dearth of women, but when Volz asked about it, "They said no women want to sit with them."
Actually, there are three female members: Karlys Kline, a businesswoman who loves to come partly because "when you bring up somebody . . . between them they know every branch of the person's family tree." There's Patricia Stanley, the president of Frederick Community College, who joined, one member said, "just to make connections [and] never comes." And there's Betty Huffer, the waitress who's there every day and bakes the birthday cake every month, a favor for which the members pitch in $2 each.
She said that Marvin Lohr, the "boss man" who's owned the restaurant for about 25 years, would like to sell the business. But nobody's buying, she said, when the place is crowded every morning with a group of old guys who buy nothing but coffee.
So for now, their piece of old Frederick is safe.
On the dot of 10:30, the group rose to leave. This is a habit left over from the days when, in a town where everybody knew everybody else, it wouldn't be right to loaf for long. Now, said Maury Hassett, 85, the former publisher of the Gazette newspaper, "We go home and take a nap."
They stood in line at the register to pay their $1.16, including tax, then walked into the glare of a city that, every day, reminds them less of their youth.
They'll be back tomorrow.