LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - The eight people who meet at Lyle Mack’s Longview home each week could reasonably teach a history class. But their knowledge is rooted in memories, not textbooks.
On any given Friday, members of the reading group thumb through such novels as Bob Greene’s “Once Upon a Town” or H.G. Wells’ “The Outline,” pacing themselves through a couple chapters of two or three books.
Hans Schaufus, a retired Longview librarian, is the storyteller. His audience is an anthology of humanity: A group of senior citizens from all over the earth, from diverse backgrounds who come to read and talk about wars, government and politics. The sessions are about sharing and camaraderie, some role reversals and paybacks — and keeping their faculties sharp.
The group formed almost three years ago after Schaufus began reading aloud to Mack, now 93, who had suffered a stroke six months earlier. The group’s preferred meeting space is in Mack’s living room, which gets cluttered with books, a few cups of coffee and a table full of finger food.
In light of Mack’s recent health problems, though, the group has temporarily relocated to Frontier Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center, where they crowd a table placed in the center of a yellow-walled room.
The gathering is a constant in Mack’s life. It began modestly between just him and Schaufus. Now the Friday sessions include others who are looking to sharpen their minds, share their experiences and fuel the banter.
“It’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve done since retiring,” said Schaufus, 74. “There’s no politics in this group. We just like getting together.”
Mack, a former Marine raised on a farm in Oregon, has long had a fascination with history and world news. He was an educator for a number of years. Soon after retiring from the Longview School District, he taught community classes to seniors at Lower Columbia College. Several members of the reading circle were once students in Mack’s World News Discussion class at LCC.
Schaufus was among them. He remembers Mack coming to the classes equipped with copies of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily News for a well-rounded discussion of international and local topics.
“We all had that common interest of being on top of what was going on in the world,” Schaufus recalled of the 15-person class. “If you have an interest in history, there’s just a lot you have in common.”
Mack’s teaching came to an end three-and-a-half years ago when a stroke largely blinded and disabled him. It was then that Schaufus pitched the idea to read aloud to Mack. Their roles suddenly reversed.
“I knew he liked to be engaged in history and what was going on in the world,” Schaufus said. “I thought I’d just ask him if he wanted me to read to him. I’d go down and spend time with him.”
Before long, Schaufus said, the group expanded. They were equally connected by their differences and similarities. The members’ origins span Germany, France, Latvia and the southern United States.
“Our group really has an international flavor to it,” Schaufus said.
All members of the circle also have stories of their own.
Odette Rosillo, 89, shows up wearing a black hat with her curled hair peeking out from beneath. She grew up in France during a time when war tore through her country.
“My life was war to war,” she said, recalling such feuds as the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the German occupation in 1941 and the first Indochina War.
She arrived in the U.S. on a ship in 1948, having just married an American man whom she met when he worked in grave registration in France. They settled in Indiana, but when work became scarce, Rosillo moved to Washington, D.C., where she operated a storefront. She wasn’t in the U.S. long before she fell ill. Rosillo returned home briefly to obtain medical care, but staying in France wasn’t an option at that time, and she returned to the states in 1953.
“Europe was a mess,” she recalled. “There was no future there.”
Upon her return, she lived in Rhode Island and Los Angeles before eventually retiring in Castle Rock. She’s spent the last 20 years in Longview.
Rosillo joined the reading group shortly after it began. She said it helps her function better and forces her brain to “work harder.”
“People don’t read much anymore,” she said. “What educated me in life was reading.”
Rosillo is talkative and quick. If she had a counterpart in the reading circle, it might be Ausma Peakalns.
Peakalns, 88, is a quiet presence at the gatherings. She grew up in Latvia and had many different homes along her journey to the states — Germany, England and Canada, among them. She eventually married a Longview resident and made the Northwest her permanent home.
Though she’s lived in Longview since 1975, her travels have equipped her with a wealth of experience. The weekly meetings are occasionally a walk down memory lane for her.
“Some of it I have lived through myself,” she said.
“She’s been a real asset,” interjected circle member Dorothy Wojtowych of Longview. “She always contributes. She’s been there, done that.”
Wojtowych, 88, is a first-generation American citizen. Her parents came from Germany, and she was born in Wisconsin. Her family relocated to the Northwest when her father, Herman Gevers, came here to help establish the Longview Fibre Co. plant in 1927.
She sits at each meeting with a pencil and paper, diligently jotting down the many names, dates and places discussed in the readings.
Wojtowych regularly asks Horst Pagel to repeat pronunciations and spellings as she quickly scrawls them down.
Pagel, 87, is another quiet presence in the room. Like Rosillo and Peakalns, Pagel offers a first-hand perspective on history. He grew up in Germany and was a prisoner of war in Russia. After the war, he came to America and became a citizen in 1962. He had a career in wood technology for Weyerhaeuser Co. and lived in seven different states before settling in Longview.
The soft-spoken man (though he’s a frequent letter-to-the editor writer) is tasked with starting each meeting with a vocabulary lesson. On a recent Friday, he walked the group through understanding the term “mito,” a Japanese term meaning domain. The lesson corresponded with their current read - “Inventing Japan: 1853-1964.”
After Pagel’s lesson, they began their reading for the day. Schaufus read a few chapters of “Inventing Japan,” pausing occasionally to discuss the material.
“When did the Japanese War begin?” he quizzed.
“1931,” answered Marion Metke, an 89-year-old Longview resident whose thick accent betrays her as a Southern native.
“Now how do I know that?” she asked, chuckling.
“You were there. There’s some Japanese in you isn’t there?” Schaufus joked.
Metke grew up in Tennessee. She jokes she’s “from that other country - the South.”
“Born in Nashville,” she said, proudly. “Married during the second world war and married a Yankee.”
Metke said she moved frequently before settling in Longview. Dolphine Mack — Lyle Mack’s wife and a group member — said Metke is one of the most well-read people she’s met.
During a gathering two weeks ago, Dolphine wheeled her husband up to a table and took her place by his side. Though not as outspoken as the others, she plays her own role caring for Mack and absorbing the conversation.
“When someone speaks (in this group), I listen because I know they know what they’re talking about,” she said.
To Wojtowych, the weekly gatherings offer a common ground to share experience and perspective.
“We certainly don’t all think the same way,” Wojtowych said. “With our experience, you can’t.”
But the meetings’ significance extends far beyond a history lesson. The readings preserve memories and create a bond among people so vastly different.
And, perhaps most importantly, the gatherings return a favor to Mack, the person who inspired them from the beginning.
Dolphine Mack asserts: “It’s something that Lyle lives for.”
Information from: The Daily News, https://www.tdn.com
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