Veterans enjoy daily coffee at Willamette General Store

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Jim Kirby and Richard Hunt regularly attend the morning coffee meetings at the Willamette General Store. When Patricia Sprague arrives for her early morning shifts at the Willamette General Store, she can almost always count on one thing.

A group of older men, sleepy-eyed under their military-themed baseball caps, will gather at precisely 7 a.m. when the store opens. Sprague knows where they will sit — around two adjoined tables just left of the front entrance — and that fresh coffee must be brewed before she opens the doors.

“Otherwise,” she said, “they won’t know what to do.”

They have been gathering for years, these men — almost all of them retired veterans of different wars who find common ground in their West Linn roots. The General Store on Willamette Falls Drive is only their most recent home; until 2011, the morning coffee gatherings took place across the street at the West Linn Saloon.

The owner, Jim Kirby, gave them their own key to get in early, but that ended when Kirby sold the business.

And so they moved on, but the routine remained the same. Every morning, from Monday through Saturday, they drink their coffee and talk about whatever is on their minds. They pause only to play a short card game, or to allow resident computer expert Richard Hunt to look up a pertinent factoid on his tablet.

By 8:15 a.m., and preferably no later, they are out the door.

“It gets your brain functioning right off the bat,” said Hunt, a peacetime Army veteran who has been part of the group for 11 years. “This is the first thing I do for six days a week.”

Kirby likes to say he inherited the group when he bought what was then known as the Willamette Tavern back in 2001. A local volleyball coach who spent six years in the Air Force, Kirby, 63, bonded with the men and found their stories fascinating.

“You think it’s just a bunch of retired guys,” Kirby said. “And then you get to talking to them and it’s rather amazing what they’ve done. That’s why I stick around.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The group meets at 7 a.m. sharp every day except for Sunday, and topics of conversation range from West Linn history to national politics, wildlife and television shows.

In this setting, Kirby said with a laugh, “I’m the kid going on 64.”

Alongside him at the table are men like Pete Kalenik, 89, a World War II veteran who served from 1941 to 1947.

“I went through 15 major engagements,” Kalenik said, “and I’m still breathing, thank god.”

He served with Jack Lamb, another regular at the coffee gatherings, and Kalenik has even come to believe that Lamb helped fill his ship with fuel at one point during the war.

Others served in Vietnam or Korea, and though those experiences helped shape them, they certainly don’t define them. On a recent Tuesday morning, conversation bounced freely from Clint Eastwood movies — “He makes a great grumpy old man” — to politics, minor league baseball and cruise ships.

“You never know from one day to the next what anyone is going to talk about in here,” said Randy Hartman, one of the few regulars who has yet to retire.

Hartman’s father, Lauren, was one of the founders of these gatherings — the first of which he said took place in the early 1980s.

None of today’s regulars were attending back then, but the spirit remains the same, and that’s what keeps Hartman coming back on his days off from working at the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“I learn so much from listening,” Hartman said. “These guys are all born and raised in this town. They watched this town grow, and can tell you stuff about this town that nobody else can, which I think is just really neat.

“I’ve lived here all my life, for 53 years, but that’s nothing compared to what these guys have been.”

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