Childhood friends savor weekly Wednesday meetups
SHELBY TOWNSHIP — For the past few years, the McDonald’s at 23 Mile Road and Van Dyke has hosted a group of senior citizens every Wednesday morning; they’ve been meeting many more years, but the group relocated after getting kicked out of the Meijer café for being too rowdy.
Although they talk over one another and provide a low rumble of background noise for the rest of the restaurant, General Manager Amanda Tokar welcomes the group.
“They’re like part of the family,” Tokar said. “Everybody knows them when they come in, they say hi, and a lot of people know them by name.”
Marketing Supervisor Suzanne Sudek said she oversees 100 restaurants across the state and that most restaurants have a core group that comes in regularly, but that this is one of the biggest groups she has encountered.
“This particular restaurant was remodeled recently, so I think it lends itself well (to facilitate the group’s informal gathering),” Sudek said.
Most in the group have their roots at Utica High School, and several graduated in 1955 — the last class to graduate from the building that now houses Eppler Junior High.
They recall a time when Shelby Township was called Disco, when the city of Utica was called Hog’s Hollow and when the area was nicknamed “Whiskey City” and the rhubarb capital of the world. They recall a time when dancing was banned in Utica because of a fatal accident when someone got thrown out of a hotel window.
Among their ranks are retired tool and die makers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, bus drivers, truck drivers, hardware store owners, pharmaceutical representatives, credit union managers and a former township supervisor and township trustee.
Many men also served in the military. Leroy Cate, 79, of Sterling Heights, said he ran into Bruce Rife, 79, of Shelby Township, whom he knew from high school, at a party in Korea in 1954, when he was in the Air Force and Rife was in the Army.
Ron Poli, 79, of Washington Township, recalls drag racing down Hall Road when it was only two lanes.
“We had a lot of fun, and we never destroyed anything,” he said. “When you’re a teenager, you think you’re infallible, immortal.”
Poli said he began working at J & J Ace Hardware in Utica when he was 11 years old because his parents owned the store. He then inherited the business from his parents and employed his own children when they were young before he and his brother sold it 25 years ago.
Robert Bronke, 77, of Shelby Township, lives with his wife, Judy, 72, on the opposite side of the street on which he grew up and is neighbors with his cousin, Marvin Parrott, 77.
Robert said he remembers when the city paved Van Dyke Avenue when he was around 12 years old; most of the streets were gravel. He said there were only three bars and a general store.
“If you wanted a nice restaurant, you’d have to go to Woodward,” Judy said. “And if you wanted to go shopping, you’d have to go out to Pontiac because that was where Sears was at.”
Carl DiCicco, 78, of Shelby Township, said his father bid $5,000 on a piece of property in 1952 and built a gas station at 24 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue. DiCicco used to have to pump gas and service cars as a teenager.
“Gas was 16 cents at the lowest we had it,” DiCicco said. “That is cheap — 16 cents today, you won’t even get a cupful.”
Terry Plutter, 76, of Shelby Township, said his father was a Justice of the Peace from the 1950s to the 1960s before becoming a county commissioner, and he also officiated DiCicco’s wedding. Plutter said he had a lot of friends when they got tickets.
“Your dad chewed me out one time when I got a ticket,” Jerry Boroski, 75, of Shelby Township, told Plutter. “I didn’t have to pay, but I got a chewing out.”
Many members of the group also said they remembered swimming in the Clinton River and having to post a lookout, since the old Utica slaughterhouse backed up to a canal that emptied into the river.
“He’d say, ‘It’s getting red; you better look out,’ and pretty soon, you’d see the little pieces of stuff floating down,” Bronke said.
Borowski said before Utica had a school bus, a private company traveled from 26 Mile to 16 Mile roads, and kids used to have to bring a milk bottle cap to stamp since it cost 25 cents per person. Rife said that many kids also had to walk up to two miles to go to school and in deep snow in the winter.
“It was a different time then,” Rife said. “It was a good time for growing up. We didn’t have no computers.”