Story by Jeannie Stone
Over the past 20 or more years, scores of Russellville politicians included a morning coffee stop at the Hardee’s on West Main Street as part of their grass-roots campaign strategy. While the coffee is commendable, the real draw is the loosely-formed group of men who have claimed the restaurant as their daily meeting place.
“It’s kind of a way to keep up with each other,” he said. “People have been meeting here for many years. I’ve been coming for 14 years. We used to call this ‘the office’ because before cell phones, we’d take quite a few phone calls here.”
“He’s just a newbee,” Slim Martin, also a retired carpenter, said. Like many of the other men straggling in, Martin has been a ‘member’ for around 20 years. Jim Pullen, retired construction worker, and Johnny Hamilton started attending around the same time.
There are no membership fees, attendance rosters or rules, but everyone is aware when one of the 30 or so men is absent for a period of time.
“Anybody seen Vernon (Howard)?” Sorrels asked. “We’re worried about him. We’re going to have to check on him after the meeting today.”
In one corner, retired grocer Leo Elliott is regaling his friends on the dismal state of the local tomatoes. With ever a mind toward value, he expresses outrage over the high cost of produce.
“Oh, we mostly talk about bowling and fishing,” he said, when pressed.
“If it happened in town in the last 100 years or it’s in today’s newspaper, it’s talked about here,” Sorrels said.
It’s evident that there’s a whole lot of talk going on here.
“Women, that’s what they talk about,” Bob Lancaster, retired from AFCO Steel, said. Sorrels disagreed. “Politics and sports,” he said.
“If you want to get the group really riled up — especially when John Montgomery is here because he’s a Republican – get them talking about politics,” Kim Rogers, general manager for Hardee’s, said. “They’re here rain or shine. If they’re not here, we actually worry about them,” Rogers added.
Rogers, manager since 1998, knows their names. They are like employees she said.
“Heck, I was here before they bulldozed it and changed its appearance,” Winford Hoover, retired school administrator, said.
The members represent all walks of life. Carpenters and educators seem to be in abundant supply, but there’s also an insurance salesmen, a banker, a couple of retired county judges, a real estate agent, a mess sergeant, a gas man, a steel man, an author, several small business owners, a grocer, a peach farmer and an ex-mayor.
“That’s a rough bunch,” John Canerday, former owner of a Honda dealership and a retired Tyson’s employee, said. “They’re the kind of people that’d take the chicken of your plate.”
Retired gas man Jimmy George of Dardanelle mumbled, “That’s about as funny as a root canal.”
“Seriously,” former National Guard cook James Robertson said. “I was raised on Hilltop, but two thirds of these guys were just trucked in here.”
“Ouch,” former Arkansas Tech controller Hamilton said. “Disrespect — that’s what you get when you’re from Newton County.”
That’s the kind of joking around that fills the space between heated political discussions and ruminations. Noticing that a reporter is scribbling down notes, Canerday said, “Oh-oh, we better clean up our act.”
“Sometimes they can get a little rowdy,” 10-year-old Robert Boren said of his grandfather’s friends. “I like coming here, though.”
The Atkins Middle School student doesn’t have a Game Boy or any electronic systems plugged in. He listens, occasionally laughs and politely answers questions. “Mostly, I just listen,” he said.
His grandfather, Henry Chronister of Moreland, calls the restaurant “the coffee shop.” After retiring from Centurytel, he took to checking in with his friends for periodic updates. “It’s tradition now,” he said.
Canerday brushed away a question and pointed to a fellow member with his nose in the newspaper. “Talk to him. He’s the Master of Ceremonies.”
Retired real estate agent, James C. “Jug” Knight, peers from behind the pages of the local paper. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” he said.
A small, round object passes before his eyes as a pacemaker is fingered by one person then the other. “That’s what keeps your heart going,” someone said.
There’s no denying the aging of the present population. Hoover chuckled. “Some people call us the Hearing Aid Club because every one of us has hearing aids.”
“That’s 99 percent true,” Hamilton said. “I’m the only one who can hear good. That’s why I have to talk so loud though. They can’t hear anything.”
Retired banker Bert Mullens slowly pushed his chair away from the table in case anyone had something interesting which might serve to detain him.
“I guess I better get back to the boss,” he said, referring to his wife sitting at the other end of the restaurant.
“I left mine at home,” Robertson said.
Charles Allen, who is still active in the Lion’s Club, laughed. In fact, he’s had a smile on his face for the last hour. “These guys crack me up,” he said.
“We don’t do a lot of politicking ourselves,” Sorrels said, “but we do a lot of arguing. It does get kind of thick around here during election season.”
Don Sevier, former athletic director Arkansas Tech, has been coming to the coffee shop for more years than he can recount.
Retired judge and peach farmer Wayne Nordin laughed and shook his head.
Elliott found the ideal way to fellowship from both sides of the table. “I just kind of keep quiet and let them talk,” he said.
All of the talk is pleasant, said Don McAnulty, who retired from Allstate Insurance. Another 20-year-plus member, he and Hoover are deer hunters.
“We both start counting the days till opening day around in June,” he said. “On the other hand, you can hear something on just about everything down here. You don’t need a paper or watch the news on T.V.”
“You don’t even have to have an opinion,” Hoover said, “we’ve solved many problems here, and, besides, the coffee’s always on.”