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February 4, 2013

Longtime pals use Super Bowl as catalyst for annual gathering

Staunton — Two tables full of poker chips and hands full of memories surrounded a television tuned to the Super Bowl.

Sunday evening’s Super Bowl featured the San Francisco 49ers versus the Baltimore Ravens, led by the brothers Harbaugh. In the basement of a house outside Staunton, another band of brothers was shuffling cards in wait for the kick-off.

Dennis Campbell, 58, said the dozen or so friends gathered represented an unbroken chain of 31 annual Super Bowl parties, stemming from childhood friendships dating back more than half a century.

The group traditionally starts its party at 1 p.m. with tables full of food near tables full of poker chips and cards. “The faces have changed over the years. We usually get about a dozen people,” Campbell said.

This year’s party was hosted by Wally Kozubal, 72, a Ford Motor Co. retiree and relative newcomer to the gang. After retirement, he and his wife purchased their lakeside property outside Staunton and built a home there in 1996.

“My son-in-law brought me to one of their poker games and I was hooked. I’ve been coming ever since,” he said of his 17-year involvement.

“It’s the camaraderie. We all get along good, and we can all take the abuse,” he laughed.

Outside the poker room, the basement’s kitchen contained counters full of chicken wings, Italian beef sandwiches, chili, shrimp cocktail and St. Elmo’s horseradish sauce. Baked spaghetti, cupcakes and beer were also in copious supply as the guys broke from one round of poker for food before heading back for more.

Campbell recalled one year Larry Deal brought “hot dog gravy,” a questionable concoction which was neither rejected nor brought back.

“Actually, it wasn’t too bad,” he said. “We have all kinds of food.”

John McAleese drove down from Indianapolis to meet the guys with whom he first started playing cards at the Elks Country Club pool as a 7-year-old. Playing then for pennies by the swimming pool, he said he grew up on Terre Haute’s north side, down the street from Jim Stanfill, Tom Peter and Bob Poynter, all of whom knew each other as 5-year-olds.

“Now we’re in our 60s and still playing cards together,” he remarked. “Those games have been going on now for over 50 years.”

Campbell said some members of the clique have driven from as far as Cincinnati for the reunion. Over the course of three decades, the winter ritual has been hosted amid blizzards, sunshine and rain.

“We look forward to it. It really is like a holiday,” he said, pointing out the guys begin planning for it in November.

Years when the Indianapolis Colts played were obviously big years for the guys, he said, noting this Super Bowl was more of a toss-up.

Kozubal said he too was relatively indifferent to Sunday’s teams.

“I’m a region boy,” the Schererville native said, explaining his allegiance to the Bears, Colts and Big 10 college teams. “Probably the 49ers, but I don’t have any skin in the game. Those are about as far away from me as I can get.”

Upstairs, his wife of 52 years, Mary Lou, spent the afternoon watching television with Eve Fears.

“We’ve been watching ‘Say Yes to the Dress.’ It’s a bridal show,” she said, pointing out that while many wives might object to their husbands bringing a dozen friends over for the Super Bowl, she finds it a good chance to escape. “That’s a good group of guys.”

Moving to a new town after retirement raises some concerns about establishing new friendships, she said. But in their case, the couple fell into luck with the tight-knit and eclectic bunch of locals.

“They would do it every weekend if they could,” she said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or


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