For one group of local couples, Valentine’s Day isn’t just a day to celebrate the love in their individual marriages. It isn’t about cards or flowers (although those sentiments are covered; more on that later). Rather for this group of 16 friends, Valentine’s Day honors a pledge of remarkable friendship that has endured for more than 30 years, marked by a special dinner held every year.
Love Your Neighbor
Mike and Joanne Barrett, Mike and Marcia Bussey, Ron and Shirley Hamilton, Bill Hargis and his late wife Joan, Curt and Sue Johannsen, Bruce and Gloria Soma, Jim and Kathie Widen, and Larry and Linda Wilford are the couples of the “Great 8,” as they call themselves. They met living and raising kids in Woodbury in the ’80s when Radio Drive was a gravel road, and having a McDonald’s in town was a pretty big deal. “Shortly after we got here the internal combustion engine was invented,” Mike Bussey jokes.
The friendship first blossomed with the ladies. “I was new to Woodbury in the mid-’80s and was invited to join a Bible study with this wonderful group of gals,” Joanne Barrett says. “We all had young families and had so much in common. Many of us were neighbors, so we started doing social things together.”
The ladies began hosting a progressive dinner each year around Christmastime. After three years, the menu was paired down to just soup, salad and dessert, and the men were left a little hungry. “Basically we all agreed we could do better than that,” says Jim Widen. “And [the wives] were like, okay, show us.”
Love a Challenge
To prove their claim, the men set up a Valentine’s surprise. “When a limousine came to my house and my husband told me to get in, I didn’t know what was happening,” says Marcia Bussey. “One by one, all the women were picked up and the driver drove for two hours, even into Wisconsin. He stopped at the Lowell Inn and we were so excited, then he slammed the door and drove on. We got back to Woodbury and finally arrived at one of the homes. All the men were standing in a line from the driveway to the front door, with red roses for each of us.”
The men made an elaborate dinner from scratch, with multiple courses including sorbet. “Everybody brought their wedding china and placed it at the seat where each wife was going to sit,” says Bill Hargis. “Most of them hadn’t seen that china for so long, they couldn’t remember which one was theirs,” says Curt Johannsen.
The following year, the men brought the women to a Valentine’s dinner at the Afton House Inn.
“The waiters brought out these beautiful steak dinners and set them in front of all the men; in front of all the women they set peanut butter sandwiches,” says Kathy Widen. “Eventually we got our steaks, but we still laugh about that second dinner.”
The dinner became an annual event. Over the years it has been held at different homes, even several years vacationing in Florida. The Busseys were the only couple to move away, living in Jerusalem and then Chicago. They made the 800-mile round trip every year for the dinner until they eventually came back to live in Woodbury.
“Our group has had the privilege of stability of life and home,” says Shirley Hamilton. “Because of career, family and life situations, many people are not allowed the privilege of living and raising families in the same community. Some people might call it boring, but we find strength in these friendships.”
Love and Stuff
Each dinner the men pull out all the stops—from thoughtful table settings to a unique menu. Of course, they make sure to cover the traditional sentiments of Valentine’s Day as well. “We really are a generous and thoughtful group,” Mike Bussey says sarcastically of the ritual generic Valentine’s card that reads “With love and whatever” which they have been giving the women for 30 years. Each wife initials it under the year.
“It’s a tight budget,” says Mike Barrett with a laugh. Mike keeps the card and his wife, Joanne, maintains scrapbooks and albums with photos from every dinner over the years.
For convenience, one year the men bought artificial silk roses instead of real roses. “They didn’t smell like roses so they doused them with perfume before giving them to us,” says Marcia Bussey. “We needed to finally put them outside because the fragrance was too powerful and the perfume too bad.”
Made with Love
The Valentine’s dinner menu, however, is taken quite seriously. Although all the men take a different role, they agree that Bruce Soma is the master chef. He typically plans the menu a few weeks out. “Sometimes they don’t get what it is we’re fixing so I have to show a picture,” says Soma.
The group does reserve a right to veto, however. “No more spring rolls,” says Jim Widen. “We’re not doing stuffed manicotti ether,” say Mike Barrett. “We’ve also cut out the heart-shaped butter,” says Curt Johannsen.
Nevertheless the men are up for the challenge each year. For example, last year’s menu consisted of the following appetizers: sparkling fruit, pecan crusted cheese bites, Valentine’s trail mix, apple garlic pepper cream cheese and shrimp cucumber rounds, followed by a course of artichoke tomato bisque and harvest salad with cherry vinaigrette. A palette cleanser of lemon sorbet with strawberry sauce preceded the main course of beef and lobster, served with potato columns and green bean bundles. Dessert was a selection of New York style cheesecake mousse, butter pecan ice cream dessert, caramel cashew bites and Valentine’s melts.
The men have taken up to two days of prep, especially for desserts. But usually they start about 2 p.m. the day of to prep (and imbibe). “There’s as much enjoyment on our part as there is on theirs,” says Larry Wilford. “And the trouble is sometimes there are distractions during prep, like the time Ron (Hamilton) drove his car into the only snow bank in the area,” says Mike Bussey. “We had to all go out and push it out.” Hamilton adds.
The men have a dress code of dark pants and white shirt and wear matching aprons with their names on them, made by Gloria Soma.
“Each year they just seem to out-do the year before in taste and creativity; they make things I would never attempt to make,” says Linda Wilford. “After nearly 30 years, I treasure looking forward to the evening.”
Love the Lord
A shared Christian faith has been a key ingredient in sustaining these friendships over the years.
“Getting to know people in a fun setting, but that is also faith-based, is huge,” says Kathie Widen. “We all go to different churches, but we pray for each other and have a safe place to go and share the ups and downs of life.”
Another tradition during this Valentine’s dinner is that the men pray over their families for the year, often led by Ron Hamilton, who as a pastor founded Woodbury Community Church.
The women of the “Great 8” continue to walk together weekly in the summer and do a winter Bible study. The men meet every week for a Bible study. “The ladies started it out, and they were kind enough to introduce the guys and include us, but my sense is the guys have become even closer than the ladies,” says Bruce Soma.
Share the Love
“This is an ultimate friendship. We have been there for each other commemorating parent’s funerals, children’s weddings and the births of many grandchildren,” says Sue Johannsen.
A special fishing pole has a bobber added for each grandchild born among the group, now 45. They also pass around a 45-year marriage commemorative plate to each couple hitting the milestone.
“When my wife died in August of 2016, these guys and their wives were a huge source of support,” says Bill Hargis. “At last year’s dinner, they set an empty place setting in honor of Joan and served her favorite menu.”
Gloria Soma crafts a thank you poem to the men after each dinner. “This group, both the men and women, is extremely special to me,” she says. “They provide me with love, support, encouragement, challenges, an abundance of laughter and inspiration.”