When you are from Anaconda, you have a bond.
That statement from Steve Kubrich, a 1946 graduate of Anaconda High, undeniably summarizes the vitality shared by a group of nearly 30 men now living in the Missoula area.
This pragmatic gang of relocated gentleman — and self-proclaimed sports heroes — still calls the Smelter City their home. They meet the first Wednesday of each month at the Bodega Bar and Grill on Ryman Street in Downtown Missoula to reminisce of days gone by, banter about current attitudes and events, and bend history a bit if it suits their needs that day.
With roots mainly grown in the eastern section of Anaconda known as Goosetown, where the sulfuric odor of copper smelting wrapped families in its blanket and rooftops nearly touch like reuniting lovers, they share stories from war-era childhood to college days on the gridiron or hardboards.
There is no official group leader or membership roster. Ages range from pre-schooler Emma Softich, daughter of 1978 Anaconda High graduate Matt Softich, to John Kouchen who turned 93 at the May luncheon. The group celebrated with cake, which Kouchen turned to the youngest attendee, Emma Softich to blow out the candles.
That day, three men still living in the Anaconda area — Leo Jense, Pat Reardon and Ray Puccinelli — stopped for lunch with the gang while visiting Missoula.
Anyone from Anaconda is welcome to attend the Wednesday assembly, said gang member Ed McLean, a Missoula District Court Judge.
Judge McLean, a 1949 Anaconda High graduate, explains: "A group of us would get together every once in awhile — but we were not very organized."
That changed after a barbecue hosted by Anaconda native and fellow 1946 graduate Dick "Lefty" Cerino. "Lefty wanted more," McLean remembers of that party, which led to monthly gatherings in the mid-1990s. The toughest task was finding a venue that would host the group, which can range from 15 to more than 30 men, depending on the season.
Cerino, now 76, lends a lighthearted look at playing football and basketball at Anaconda High School in 1948 and 1949. After college, Cerino spent 37 years working as a physical therapist at St. Patrick Hospital, and he retired 14 years ago as the director of rehabilitation services.
Bill Kidd, at 85 years or age, admits that during the years before his graduation in 1939, he had no interest in being an athlete. "No ball," jokes the kid from Ash Street. "All I did was chase women."
Ron "Swen" Swanson regularly attends the lunches, speaking about his high school days and his 1945 graduation. He went on to play basketball at Carroll College from 1945 to 1947, but then transferred to the University of Montana to receive his degrees.
Swanson, 76, tells of how he went on to serve as a guidance counselor and taught biology, physics and chemistry in Lewistown.
Class of '46 graduate Jim "Hix" Cordial was an All-State standout on the football field and the basketball court. After serving military duty in the 11th Airborne Division, he coached football for seven years at Oregon Tech, the same school where outgoing UM Athletic Director Don Reed also coached.
Four years ago, Cordial retired (not completely, however) from a career building affordable senior housing in Montana, Idaho and Washington.
Cordial's classmate, Steve Kubrich, also lives in Missoula, where he owns a successful Southgate Mall shoe store, Montana Bootlegger. The 76-year-old Goosetown native played football at UM from 1947 through 1949. He was also instrumental in developing Missoula's highly popular Little Grizzly Football program for students in grades five through eight.
One of the jolliest of the gang, Kubrich can take a ribbing well, like when McLean says about his classmate that "a lack of knowledge has never prevented him from having answers." At one Goosetown Gang lunch gathering, Kubrich took a try poking fun at Bobby Miles "Miles weighed 205 [pounds] in sixth grade," Kubrich insists. That was most likely a stretch, but the 6-foot Miles did weigh in at 240 pounds when he eventually came to Missoula in 1954 to play at UM. Previously, he played football at Santa Ana Junior College.
The Miles family lived in California for many years after times got tough in Anaconda during the '40s. Bobby Miles finished his senior year in Huntington Beach in 1947. His subsequent two years of junior college ended with an injured elbow and an itch to join the Army to fight in the Korean War from 1951 to 1954.
Jim Dunlap, from the Class of 1951, went on to become Dr. Jim Dunlap. He fits right in with his cohorts who had more stellar athletic careers, but admits that high school sports were not his cup of tea.
"I lasted the kick-off of the first game in Butte," says the 72-year-old doctor. He broke his leg during that initial play. "That was one of the things that got me interested in medicine." He retired from his Missoula dermatology practice 10 years ago and since 1994 has been a volunteer wood carver working on the ponies for Missoula's highly acclaimed carousel in Caras Park.
A more outspoken Anaconda native, who also regularly attends the gang's lunches, is Orville Verlanic, from the Class of 1948. Verlanic grew up along the northern edge of Anaconda's West Valley and spent 21 years working as a railroad car foreman after finishing high school.
Today, he says his time is best spent "running down Republicans," as he puts it.
Last month, the Missoulian newspaper printed another of his recurring letters to the editor. It quoted a 1952 statement by President Eisenhower that blasted any political party that would attempt to abolish Social Security or other public assistance programs.
Cordial calls the abundant letter, "Orville's Tirade." Though there are opinions and affiliations of all kinds at each lunch, the group intends to maintain their schedule for the first Wednesday of each month. The gentlemen will continue to enter the Bodega, place their sandwich order and wait around a grouping of at least 10 green tables in the dimly lit back room of the bar. As the potatoes are in the fryer and burgers sizzle behind the bar on the grill, the men will never stop talking about the good ol' days.
Amy Joyner, formerly of Anaconda, is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula.