One last time

This week’s Over the Hill in Underhill luncheon is the finale
Warren Bluhm
Oconto County Times Herald News Editor

TOWN OF UNDERHILL — It’ll happen something like this:

Just before noon today at the Underhill Community Center, Jan Scheibe will stand up and greet the folks who have gathered for lunch, maybe with a joke like the one she told last Wednesday.

It seems archaeological teams in New York and Los Angeles were arguing over which city had the first telephone system, after each dug down 10-20 feet and found ancient copper cables.

A Wisconsin team beat them both, Scheibe said: Its archaeologists had dug down and found nothing — proof that the Badger State had the first wireless system.

The group will share personal and community news, they’ll say grace together, and they’ll dig in for a family meal prepared by Marge Kasten. This is a special week, so they’ll have chicken from a local store, Kasten’s legendary potato salad, and dessert baked by Kasten’s daughter.

Afterward, they’ll share memories, probably prompted by Wayne Strei, and after a couple of hours everyone will head home, just like almost every Wednesday for the past 18 years.

The only difference is they won’t be back next week, or the week after. The weekly luncheon, which has gained the name “Over the Hill in Underhill” over the years, is coming to a close after this gathering.

“It’s time,” Kasten said.

“It’s time,” Scheibe agreed.

Even the usually loquacious Strei said it: “It’s time.”

Eighteen years ago, Strei, who grew up in Gillett and moved to San Francisco to explore a career in music and theater, was visiting his parents when the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath he decided to move home to stay.

He brought with him an idea from his church in California: a senior citizens lunch hour that would be open to people of all faiths and denominations — no need to call for reservations, just drop by for food and conversation.

Kasten was recruited to fix the meal, and Scheibe and Strei were among the other members of the core group.

“The idea was that you might see somebody in church and wouldn’t necessarily see them the rest of the week,” Strei said. “We had no idea if it would work.”

Kasten was skeptical.

“I said if it’ll last a month, it’ll be a long time,” she said. “I’m still saying it.”

Long story short, it did work. The first lunch in November 2001 brought 28 people, and it wasn’t long before the group was averaging 40 or 50 every week.

“We got up to 60 people sometimes,” Strei said.

Over the years the group has been as small as 10, and the biggest crowd – 84 – came to hear Donna Nichols’ presentation on the Peshtigo Fire.

Were they able to handle a crowd that size, which matched the capacity of the Underhill Community Center?

“I had enough food, so I must have,” Kasten said.

“It’s been like loaves and fishes,” Strei said. “There’s always enough for everyone who comes, no matter how many.”

“My mother always came and she always made sure her car was full of people,” Lois Hansen said.

And the friendships …

“Marge and I became one,” Scheibe said.

“We never knew each other before,” Kasten said. “Now we talk just about every day.”

When someone was sick or lost a loved one, they could count on getting a card from the Over the Hill in Underhill group – sometimes with as many as 50 signatures, Strei said.

They would bring in speakers or entertainers — besides Nichols, well-known names include musician Johnny Doxtator and TV personalities Brad Spakowitz and Erin Davisson.

The fellowship with neighbors was the main draw over the years.

“It’s always been fun. I’ve loved the people,” Kasten said.

People have raved over her hot beef sandwiches and chicken noodle soup — and, of course, that potato salad.

“I remember I brought some potato salad home from the store one day and asked my dad how he liked it,” Strei said. “He said, ‘It’s OK. It’s not Marge’s, but it’s OK.’”

Hold a luncheon at least 50 weeks a year (barring holidays and the occasional snow day) over 18 years, with between 40 and 60 people most weeks, and it works out to somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 meals.

“And Marge made them all,” Wayne said.

“I think I took a vacation once early on to see my sister,” Kasten added.

About eight local churches have provided donations of cash and/or food through the years, and some have even offered to host the meals, but Strei said having it at the Underhill Community Center has kept the ecumenical spirit.

Now, it’s time.

The weekly turnout has been closer to the 21 who came out last Wednesday. The core group isn’t what it used to be, because, well …

“Those two tables that sat over there, they’re all dead,” joked Jeanette Lamprecht, waving to the empty space by the windows. With Kasten, Scheibe and Wayne, Jeanette is the last person still coming from that first luncheon of 28 people back in ’01.

“I’m going to miss it,” Tim Lindal said. “I cancel Meals on Wheels every Wednesday for this. I live alone, and I don’t like cooking for one, and this way I get a good, well-balanced meal.”

Several local churches and community centers provide senior meals, but the Underhill regulars say it won’t be the same.

For one thing, Scheibe said, they usually need reservations at least a day in advance.

“That has never worked for me,” she said. “I never know if I’m going to be hungry in 24 hours.”

Wednesdays at the Underhill Community Center won’t be the same after this week.

“You never really went home hungry from here,” Strei said.