Scattered among salt and pepper shakers, shiny metal napkin holders and some yellow marigolds at the Hy-Vee on Broadway, about a dozen different-sized coffee mugs sitting on five gray and white speckled tables serve as the placeholders for quite a stately group of gentlemen.
Leo Funk, a retired banker, points and announces each member of the group, excitedly telling some highlights of each person’s life.
“This guy here was a football player at the university. That one was a golf pro,” he says, continuing around the table naming a former principal, several teachers, a basketball player turned real estate agent — and the list goes on and on.
Ralph “Boot” Stewart, sitting directly to the left of Funk and the captain of the MU football team in 1946, says the group started out as a gathering of assistant coaches from the university in the 1940s and has since turned into a fluid meeting of about a dozen men every weekday morning at 10.
Quite storied, these men move from topic to topic as fast as a sideline coach’s hand signals. Different conversations break off from others; tangents turn into tales about grandchildren and first jobs, and the coffee sits in its place, with an occasional sip between punch lines and big finishes.
Flights turn into navigational nightmares, marching bands spell out “Boot” at Nebraska, grandchildren have exceeded expectations, and jobs used to pay 25 cents an hour.
But what is most interesting is the element of sports that permeates this collective, paralleling the founding members of the coffee group some 60 years later.
Stewart tells of his first game as coach of the University of South Dakota football team, against Nebraska no less. He explains he was down to his third string center after one fractured his jaw and the other went to medical school.
“And that guy snapped the ball over the head of the punter, and it went 40 yards,” Stewart says, eyes wide, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb and letting everyone know how far that really is. “And he was the nephew of George Edwards, the basketball coach and chair of the physical education department at MU,” and he shakes his head a little and smiles, still not believing how small this world really is.
Also connected to the football team is Funk, whose grandson is Adam Crossett, the placekicker and punter for MU since 2004. When Funk talks about himself, he rattles off a very short bio — master’s from MU, banker, then moved to Columbia almost 20 years ago — and then turns the discussion right to his grandchildren. He beams about the awards that Crossett has received and also about the successes of his other equally impressive grandchildren.
But recreational sports attract members of this group, too, and Jim Craigmile is a weekly participant. He shoots pool every Thursday morning at the senior center, and when asked if he is any good, he replies with a tilt of his head and says, “I said I’m supposed to be playing pool tomorrow.” The other guys around him laugh, too, and tell him good luck.
“A lot of things are discussed, but nothing is ever decided,” Stewart says, letting out a hearty chuckle. He touches his blue mug in front of him but doesn’t take a drink. It’s not really about the coffee anyway.