Comprised primarily of retirement-aged men (although you don’t have to be retired to join), the club has been around in one form or another since the late 1980s and meets every Thursday morning – nowadays on Zoom, but prior to the Pandemic in the fellowship hall at Eagle Harbor Congregational Church in Downtown Winslow.
Similar to service clubs such as Rotary and Kiwanis, a prospective “Oatmealer” has to be sponsored by an existing member. Part of the reason for that requirement is space. The church’s fellowship hall has limited capacity and the Oatmeal Club now has over 120 members, an email list with more than 140 names on it, and an active waiting list that is roughly three years long.
So what makes this group of retirees so popular?
“The programs are quite informal,” says Britt Crosley, a long-time member, “(but) the speakers and presentations are first class. We get a bunch of intellectual (speakers) that come from various fields. (The presentations are) very interesting. It’s a unique group.”
Besides presentations from city officials, local authors and artists, educators, and its own members, the Oatmeal Club has used it’s considerable reach to attract speakers from not only Seattle but from across the globe.
This past summer – thanks in part to Zoom – the Oatmealers were treated to a presentation from the likes of General Wesley Clark, who among his many other accomplishments, commanded allied forces during the Kosovo War and was the Supreme Commander of NATO from 1997 to 2000. Clark talked about his new initiative, “America Together – The Conversation America Needs: Civility, Bipartisanship and America’s Standing in the World.”
They also learned about the art of film editing from Brian Berdan, a film editor and a member of the American Cinema Editors (ACE) and the Motion Picture Editors Guild (MPEG), who has worked with the legendary Director David Lynch, of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks fame, and has more than 40 major film and TV production credits to his name and an Emmy nomination.
If that wasn’t enough excitement, the Oatmealers heard a Zoom presentation last August featuring Katsunori “Kats” Konishi, who provided a first-hand account from the Tokyo Summer Olympics while they were in progress.
More locally, the group received a first-hand review by Daniel James Brown of his latest book “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II.” Brown is also the author of the best selling, “The Boys in the Boat,” about the University of Washington’s crew team that defeated Nazi Germany’s national team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The 78-year-old Tusler, who’s retired after a long career in labor relations, says “camaraderie and congeniality” is what initially draws most members to the club. Then “there’s the educational component, and then just good oatmeal – a good breakfast. The club is “well educated and has a broad interest in a variety of topics,” he adds.
When the Oatmealers meet live and in person, they typically gather at 7 a.m. at the Eagle Harbor Church and pay $3 for a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of coffee, or some other beverages prior to a presentation. Once a quarter, Tusler notes with a laugh, they break the bank and pay $4 for bacon and eggs.
The club got its start circa 1989 as part of a men’s fellowship group in the church. It was a place where men could let their hair down – so to speak – and share their individual histories and stories, says Jack Fleming, who was involved early on at the church and remains an Oatmealer to this day. “It was a men’s group, no women,” Fleming recalls. “It was just for men, (and) some men had real problems,” and used the forum to air them.
The fellowship group also met early on Thursday mornings and started the tradition of eating oatmeal. Over time, outside speakers were invited, and soon after, non-church members began attending.
Eventually, it morphed into what is now known as the Oatmeal Club, as community leaders such as the late Bob Burkholder – who starred in the locally made movie “Old Goats” along with Crosley – steered it into becoming more of a discussion group.
By the year 2,000 or thereabouts, the club was made up of more non-church goers than church members, and that trend continues to this day.
“It got away from (listening to) people’s histories, and then non-members started coming,” remembers Kjell Stokness, a former City Council member and one of the original men’s fellowship participants. “The church was very welcoming… It’s amazing how this group has grown.”
While the Oatmealers are a true die-in-the-wool men’s club, Tusler says at least one-third of the group’s presentations are given by women, and that all the presentations are recorded, so that anyone – male or female – can listen to them anytime they want. “It’s a men’s club,” Tusler says without apology. “It’s not a whacko men’s club, but it is a men’s club…There are a few woman-only clubs on the island,” as well.
Tusler says the Oatmealers will likely continue to meet on Zoom until its members and the church feel its safe to meet again in the fellowship hall. “When we’re comfortable and the church is comfortable with the hall being filled, we’ll try” and meet in person. He says the club is weighing the logistics of doing a “hybrid” meeting, where some Oatmealers Zoom in while others are there in the flesh.
“Some members moved away (during Covid 19) and those people really enjoy seeing old friends,” from afar, Tusler explains. “We don’t want to lose the camaraderie.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the Bainbridge Island Oatmeal Club, contact Robert Weschler at firstname.lastname@example.org