Peter Graham, Ed.D. ate dinner at the McCutchen House for the first time 28 years ago while being recruited by the University of South Carolina to develop the curriculum and teach in the new Department of Sports and Entertainment Management. Over the years, he frequently dined there with faculty, staff, friends and family and a variety of other local establishments. In fact, he still dines there with Barbara, his wife, but instead of being surrounded by colleagues they are often in the company of neighborhood friends.
Two years after retiring from the university, Peter realized he was floundering for more social interaction. A friend, Jack Nieri, retired from the construction industry, was also feeling a lack of engagement. The two began meeting regularly for lunch, and they also met for dinner occasionally with their spouses. Prior to his retirement, Peter learned of groups of men who made a concerted effort to congregate monthly for breakfast or lunch, and the idea appealed to him. One evening, Barbara and Peter were having dinner with Jack and his wife, Penny. During the course of conversation, Peter suggested forming a Retired Old Men Eating Out Club to have lunch together on a monthly basis. Jack heartedly endorsed the concept.
The two began issuing invitations to retired men in their Wildewood neighborhood. Self-prescribed ROMEO clubs have sprung up all across the nation in the past 10 years or so as more men realize that making the most of retirement requires expanding their social interaction.
In the 2016 Teachers Insurance and Annuities Association’s Voices of Experience survey of 1,583 retirees, the general consensus is the busier, the better. Generally, women have no difficulty staying busy. They make lunch dates, shop and exercise together. In fact, the survey determined that women are 75 percent more likely to socialize regularly than men. Plus, the study found that there is a greater chance that women will pursue caring for family members, volunteering and assisting others –– which all leads to busy social calendars.
However, many men have relied so long on their work interactions to fill their social tanks that when work ends, due to retirement or health issues, socialization opportunities can dry up. Furthermore, the AARP has reported that connecting with other people over food not only feels good but is also beneficial for one’s emotional health. A low rate of interaction can result in loneliness, depression and diminished health.
From the initial ROMEO group, the membership has grown to almost 30, including engineers, doctors, bankers, realtors, real estate appraisers, lawyers, dentists, professors, investment managers, business owners and a host of other professionals. The most senior member, John Popp, is in his 90s.
Over the past five years, the group has met for lunch monthly at eateries throughout Columbia. Recently, they have also begun to gather for a monthly breakfast. Peter selects the meeting location based on responses to a periodic survey, member suggestions and opinions expressed about venues visited. Annually, he tries to choose a different restaurant for each month. Yet, sometime favorite places, like the McCutchen House, are revisited during the year.
Reservations are made with the establishment a month in advance. Peter communicates with each member by email to ascertain his attendance plan and then provides the restaurant with the number of attendees two days prior to the meeting date.
“Most restaurants have been very accommodating,” he says. “If we have a pleasant experience, we schedule a future meeting at the venue. And if not satisfied, we simply fail to return.”
Johnny Stover’s ROMEO story is similar to Peter’s. Their group started out as a trio 15 years ago when Johnny was on medical disability. His other friends were still working at the time, but they have since retired. One of the men, Bill Davies, teased Johnny about how he needed to get out of the house and give his wife a break, so they met weekly on Fridays for lunch.
This small ROMEO group welcomed more retirees, and the organization grew to an active 10 members. Instead of trying new restaurants monthly, however, this ROMEO Club assembles at Forest Lake Club where they try to meet every week for lunch.
“Forest Lake is aware of our needs, and that makes us very comfortable,” says Johnny. “We have one using oxygen, I use a walker and another is using a cane. We joke about arriving on the Still Hopes’ bus.”
Most of these members live in Columbia proper, according to Johnny. They represent diverse professional backgrounds, including a hospital administrator, an advertising executive and a priest.
Win – Win
“ROMEO is a win-win for everyone involved,” points out Peter. “The restaurants benefit from our business; the members are introduced to new dining places to which they might return –– and neighborhood friends get to interact with one another.” Some members may get together at other times during the month and others may dine together with their spouses: yet, for all members, the ROMEO Club is a social network.
“I’m just delighted to see these men get out and enjoy being around their male friends,” Peter says. “They are so happy telling tall stories and laughing together.”
Bill Davies shares the main benefit of his involvement with Johnny’s ROMEO group: “Just looking forward to and then enjoying the camaraderie of a group of male friends with somewhat similar backgrounds, but sometimes very divergent ideas.”
Peter says that the chatter with his group can become elevated but it is all in good fun. “We meet for about an hour-and-a-half. We talk about sports, travel, neighborhood and local issues, current events and, sometimes, politics.”
Johnny adds, “There is no agenda. We go wherever the conversation takes us. Someone might say something, and then the talk veers off in that direction for a while. We try to avoid the subject of religion and attempt to stay out of politics, but that’s not always possible. We have some very diverse opinions and no reluctance to express them.”
Johnny says that if there is any ribbing, it is all in fun. No one, he explains, is exempt from a bit of teasing or ridicule — especially when the stories and memories become exaggerated. With Peter’s group, an extra bit of fun is a drawing. The lucky member whose name is drawn has his lunch paid for by the group; otherwise, each member pays separately.
Because, as Bill explains, ROMEO groups are loosely organized, there is no official cap on membership numbers. However, Peter says his group is not currently taking any new members because the club has become a bit too large to be accommodated at some restaurants. Johnny says anyone in his group can ask someone else to join; but as a courtesy, the group is consulted first. “We have to question whether or not he would be offended should he find himself the brunt of some of the ribbing,” says Johnny.
“Only three members have left our ROMEO Club,” says Peter. “Unfortunately, two relocated and one passed.” The club continues to be very popular and viable. “We appreciate good food, but most importantly we enjoy meeting together.”
Johnny’s experience has been similar. “We have no goals or aspirations for our group other than to enjoy one another’s company. We have broadened our relationships.”