April 28, 1995 in Nation/World

The Secret To Friendship Through The Decades, These Women Have Made Time For One Another

William Miller Staff writer
 
Tags:feature

‘True and loyal we’ll be forever more to thee.”

Sixteen young women, fresh out of high school, recited those words, vowing never to drift apart.

They formed a club with a secret name and promised to meet faithfully on the last Tuesday of every month.

It was Spokane in January 1933, and the Depression waited for them like an assassin, eager to snuff their dreams.

Their friendship, however, proved indestructible. Neither economic catastrophe, marriage, a world war, children, retirement, grandchildren, snowstorms nor old age could break their teenage vows.

Year after year, decade after decade, the women have gathered on the last Tuesday of the month.

This week, they met for the 748th time.

One arrived in a wheelchair, another leaned heavily on a cane, a third shuffled behind a walker. Then they embraced, and their 82-year-old eyes sparkled like precious stones. Laughter warmed the room.

For several hours, time stood still.

“We had no idea it would last this long,” says Evelyn Phillips, one of seven original members who still meet monthly. “It just became part of our lives.”

“It’s stability - a feeling of continuity,” says Eleanor Kohlhauff. “We’ve known each other since the beginning.”

For most, the beginning was Centenary Methodist Church and Lewis and Clark High School, where childhood bonds were forged.

They came from working-class roots, the children of firemen, insurance salesmen and teachers. Few families could spare a dime, let alone send a daughter to college or bankroll a wedding.

Back then, the future held only uncertainty. But these young women were plucky enough to help themselves.

After high school, they raised money to hold dances at downtown hotels, then slipped on velvet dresses and beads and foxtrotted with handsome escorts in front of live orchestras. In the wings, parents served as chaperones, taking turns guarding the punch bowl.

Club meetings resembled premarital lessons in home economics.

Under the watchful eye of an older woman who served as “adviser,” the women took turns holding potluck dinners featuring oyster soup and spaghetti. Afterward, they talked excitedly about dances and hay rides, then soberly discussed ways to help the poor.

The club’s list of projects for 1935:

Quilt

Scrapbook

Study Robert’s Rules of Order

Study Etiquette by Emily Post

Philanthropic work

The philanthropic spirit never sputtered. Every fall, the women quietly sell 552 one-pound bags of pecans, raising hundreds of dollars for Spokane shelters and soup kitchens. Every Christmas, a few needy families are given food and clothing.

Such acts of charity have gone largely unnoticed, dwarfed by giant service organizations such as Rotary, Kiwanis and the Junior League.

But the tiny club, known to outsiders only as E.T.C., never has sought public attention. Participation always has been an exercise in preserving friendship and tradition.

Dues are $1 a year, the same as in 1933.

Purse-sized club programs still are bound in green-and-white yarn, still produced on a manual typewriter, still filled with old sayings such as “Friends are the chocolate chip in the cookie of life.”

The name still is a zealously guarded secret. The letters stand for something (a popular wrong guess: Eat, Talk and Chatter), but these women aren’t telling - not even husbands, children or ministers.

“I was married 48 years and never told my husband,” says Eleanor Holte, club president.

That kind of loyalty is why the club has lasted 62 years.

In the early days, when a member married, Mabel Wahlstrom played the organ and Ruth Domke sang. Other E.T.C. members served as bridesmaids. They gave one another wedding and baby showers, celebrated anniversaries and birthdays.

They consoled one another when loved ones marched off to war, rejoiced when they all came back alive.

Later, they passed around family snapshots at their gatherings, learning the names of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When Kohlhauff’s husband died six years ago, she turned inward - to the club. Her friends were there for her, just as they always have been - the ultimate support group.

There has been just one divorce in the club’s history.

“And it wasn’t her fault,” Holte whispers.

“I’m so thankful to be part of this,” says Betty Sabadin. “The friendships have deepened over the years until we are all just like an extended family.”

Sabadin is a relative Joanie-come-lately, joining the exclusive sorority in 1945. There have been few new members over the years because the club has no interest in recruiting or perpetuating itself.

“We never let it grow,” says Domke, “because we wanted to stay close.”

On the current roster, there are 17 names. All but a couple of members, slowed by poor health, are active. The elder of the group is Wahlstrom, the former adviser, who is 92. The youngest, Lorraine Wedeven, is 71.

Most of the women offer puzzled looks when asked how they have managed to meet so faithfully for so very long.

Simple, they say. They would take new calendars and circle the last Tuesday of every month.

“There’s never been any doubt about it,” says Kohlhauff. “We all knew when to go. It wasn’t an if thing. It’s just one of those things - you go to E.T.C.”

Years from now when the club fades away, some important lessons will be lost. Such as the value of true friends and the effort required to keep them.

In today’s fast-paced world - with husbands and wives on dual career tracks and children shuttled to day care and soccer practice - could 16 young women keep similar vows to be “true and loyal”?

Probably not.

“There are so many outside interests,” Wahlstrom says sadly. “People don’t have time to be friends.”

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