By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
SHENANDOAH, Iowa, Dec. 11, 2022 — While driving Saturday morning to my hometown in southwest Iowa, it occurred to me that 2022 marks 50 years since I’ve actually lived here.
(Another thing that occurred to me: On the route I took between Des Moines and Shenandoah, you cross the East Nishnabotna River six times, so 12 for the day.)
This is a little silly, I was telling myself, that I almost always make this trip on the second Saturday of December.
I do so to have lunch and share holiday greetings with a crowd of a couple hundred Shenandoah men, many of whom I don’t know. Some I know slightly, and there’s maybe a dozen I’ve known all my life and am in-touch with regularly the rest of the year.
Brian Steinkuehler, one of the organizers, convened the brief business meeting Saturday and welcomed all to the renewal of a grand holiday event in Shenandoah.
But here we all were again, gathered at the Country Club, for the 71st annual “Wassail Bowl Stag,” one of the longest-running Christmas traditions in the state.
The late Bob Tyson, one of the young businessmen who in 1950 started this tradition, explained to me years ago that they decided “we wanted to have an event so we could all get together one day before Christmas, go to lunch and have a few drinks together.”
And, by my count on Saturday, this may have been the 50th Wassail Bowl I’ve attended. Silly?
There’s something about your hometown, traditions and the holidays that have a powerful pull on a guy, you know what I mean? Actually, those same forces pull on women, too, and across Shenandoah on Saturday, the local women were gathering for their 33rd “Tannenbaum Tea.”
A panel of photos of the founders at the second Wassail Bowl in 1951. This is displayed every year.
When I walked in Saturday, I was greeted at two actual wassail bowls by Gordon Sherman and Brian Maxine, who were dressed up, wearing serving aprons, too, and ladling out the holiday punch. “Do you want ‘leaded’ or ‘unleaded’?” Brian asked. Gordon added, “We only put the real punch in one of the bowls.” I’ve been attending so long I think each of their grandpas probably served me like that, too.
They are/were members of the “Twelve O’Clock High Luncheon Club,” successors to the group in 1950 who started all this. They issue invitations every November that it’s time to get another Wassail Bowl on our calendars. Now using social media as well as snail-mail, they now tell potential attendees to send $30, which will cover a lunch of heavy & delicious hors d’oeuvres and a couple of drink tickets.
In earlier years, there were two firm rules printed on the invitations: 1) “Those who do not RSVP, one way or another, will not be invited again.” 2) “Consumption of alcoholic drinks in moderation will be tolerated.”
The second rule was added in 1952 or thereabouts. At the first couple of Wassail Bowls, things went on a little too long and got a little too loose. And, back then, there was another major social event scheduled on that same Saturday in December, in the evening, the annual fancy “Beaux Arts Ball,” which most of the Wassail Bowlers were expected to attend with their wives. The guys decided to moderate the midday festivities to ensure they could show up at the ball.
Another revelation, early-on, was that the Wassail Bowls were actually bringing in a little money, above the costs of the food and hooch. So the founders started the “Underprivileged Children’s Fund,” and any proceeds from the Wassail Bowl are deposited there. The school nurses have had exclusive access to that account, and they can draw what they need to pay for dental work, eyeglasses and other needs of local kids. Get this: After 71 years, the Wassail Bowl has contributed more than $100,000 for assistance to about 5,000 children.
This is the current organizing committee, or actually the “Twelve O’Clock High Luncheon Club,” that puts together the Wassail Bowl in Shenandoah. Left to right are Brian Steinkuehler, Brian Maxine, Nick Bosley, Bob Larson, Dennis Gates and Gordon Sherman. Not available at photo time was member Jeff Miller.
Other important notes about the Shenandoah tradition:
—The most famous “Wassail Bowl” attendee was undoubtedly Iowa Gov. Bob Ray, who was on hand once back in the 1970s. He was a pal of that Bob Tyson, mentioned earlier, the Shenandoah native who was one of the event’s founders and a state government & political staffer.
—The last surviving member of the original Wassail Bowl line-up, Harold Arkoff, died in Calabasas Park, Calif., in the spring of 2021 at the age of 95. He’d been general manager of Shenandoah radio station KMA in the early 1950s, left later that decade and eventually owned several stations and magazines out West. He made two or three trips back for later Wassail Bowls.
—One of my favorite little stories is that the late businessman John McNeilly had a bright red vest that he’d wear one time a year, to the Wassail Bowl. When I asked him about it, years ago, he answered, “The wearing of red vests in moderation will be tolerated, too.”
—Craig Harris and I were talking Saturday about how we both value the event. “I see and visit with guys here — even a couple of neighbors — who I somehow don’t seem to talk to the whole rest of the year,” Harris said. “We honk and wave, but that’s about it. It makes me realize that the way we neighbor in our busy lives today isn’t what it ought to be.”
—Among others, I had a good, long conversation with Shenandoah Mayor Roger McQueen over our prime rib sandwiches, shrimp, salmon and more. He filled me in on what’s been a good first year in office for him, and I swore my continuing allegiance. Then His Honor asked if we could have our photo taken together. How could I not love the Wassail Bowl?
Good Lord willing and the East Nishnabotna doesn’t rise too high, I’ll be making that drive again, as long as I’m able, second Saturday of December.
Shenandoah Mayor Roger McQueen and the columnist.
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