Every Tuesday morning at Keys Café starts the same as it has for decades.
As the staff prepares for opening at 8 a.m., brewing coffee and setting tables, a group of friends enters through the open backdoor. A whirlwind of chatter and laughter, they settle into two groups—men at one table, ladies at the other—in a familiar rhythm.
“We go back a long time,” Lois Swearingen says, smiling fondly at the women around her. It’s been more than 40 years since the ladies enjoyed their first cup of coffee together and 28 years since they settled on Keys.
Once the men retired and curtailed their tee times, these coffee get-togethers became part of their routine too. Both the men and the ladies meet twice weekly, though the ladies spend their Fridays at Kowalski’s Market. Some come with their spouse, and some are widowed. On a typical day, there are eight ladies and six men, all attendees of Eagle Brook Church in White Bear Lake.
But it’s far more than coffee and the occasional toast or scone.
“It’s the fellowship, isn’t it?” 93-year-old Virginia Woodbury says, joined by nods of agreement around the table. “There’s nothing like our Christian friends, and it’s a real bond between all of us.”
The group brings comfort and camaraderie to each member. If one person is missing, they check in, and there’s always room at the table for an occasional guest. Even when the café temporarily closed its doors during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, the group stayed in touch. “It’s like a support group,” Sue Vogt says. “We share our joys and our sorrows.”
The Keys Café staff has become friends too. Woodbury even recalls a few times café owner Celine Carlson hosted the ladies in her home on special occasions.
“We’ve done some special things, haven’t we, with our group?” Carlson asks the ladies at the table to resounding smiles.
“The servers and Celine, I can’t say enough about them,” Kate Whitehill says. “They’re like family.”
Dianna Delaney is the youngest member of the group, and the other women often tease Delaney that she’s “with the old ladies now.” In her early ’70s, she’s been given the responsibility of carrying on the tradition, a role she accepts wholeheartedly.
“They’ve been my mentors for almost 20 years,” Delaney says. “This is what I want to be when I grow up.”
Ron Schilla and his wife, Shirley, were married for 66 years and for many of those years visited their friends at Keys Café together.
“I lost my wife a year and a half ago, so I’d be alone,” Schilla says. “Instead, I come and I feel very comfortable because I’m part of the guys.”
It helps to continue the routine the couple set together, to find solace in the same group of friends. Schilla says, “This was her favorite place for years.”
It’s a support system the group has seen echoed in every corner of the country, in their many travels together and apart.
“This goes on in small towns all over the country,” Wayne Swearingen says, recalling times spent as a stranger at cafés along the way. “Many times …. there’s a group of guys in the corner … solving the world’s problems.”
“In some ways, it’s kind of a little piece of rural America,” Dick Locke says.
And though there are many similar groups, drinking a similar mug of coffee and chatting in towns across world, the importance of the companionship to each person sitting at Keys Café on that morning was felt and seen.
“They are my friends, and when my first husband died …” Whitehill says. “I can’t talk about it even now, 17 years later.” Whitehill pauses, and the group seems to shift closer as she speaks again, almost at a whisper. “What I can talk about is how kind and generous they were during that time of his illness and afterward.”
Woodbury reaches across the table and takes her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. And around the table, eyes shine in understanding and love.