Wednesday, April 05, 2000

Stories, razzing and affection are a lunchtime ritual for father and sons

Smiles don't fade at weekly meal

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Four lucky guys walk into a restaurant and start telling fish stories.

[photo] John, Mike, Bernie and Bob Strunk
(Tony Jones photo)
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        If it's Friday and the restaurant is the Echo in Hyde Park, the storytellers must be the Strunks. Bernie and his three sons — Bob, John and Mike — feel fortunate to be together. But they are low-key about celebrating their good luck.

        “We eat here every Friday. Been doing it for years,” Mike said between sips of iced tea and glances at his watch.

        “Every week, we're supposed to meet here exactly at 12:30 p.m. John and I are always ahead of time. Bob and my dad are always 15 minutes late.

        “Here they are now,” he added, glancing at the Echo's entrance. Raising his voice, he called out: “Right on time. Late as usual.”

        Bernie and Bob made hand gestures that could either be interpreted as “Ah, go on” or “Drop dead.”

        The four Strunks laughed and began telling fish tales. Their stories weren't about the ones that got away. The Strunks aren't anglers. They're diners.

        They were telling stories about the fish sandwiches at the Echo and I was buying for this week's “Lunch with Cliff.” That's where I treat people to a midday meal at their regular eating place to find out what's on their minds.

        For the Strunks, their regular eating place for decades has been the Echo. Bob has been eating there every Friday since 1966. He started bringing his dad in 1976 after Bernie became a widower and the boys lost their mom. Brothers Mike and John joined the lunch group in the '90s.

        The Strucks converge on the Echo from four different points on the map. Bob drives from Edgewood and picks up his dad in Villa Hills. John comes from Landen. Mike arrives from either his home in Fort Mitchell or his Bond Hill office at Xpedx. That company used to be Saalfeld Paper, a firm founded by Mike, Bob and John's maternal grandfather. At one time, each of the three brothers and their father worked in the family business.

        The Strunks don't talk about paper over lunch.

        “There's no time for that. And we have better things to discuss,” Bernie said.

        “We talk about family — we have three sisters, too. Otherwise, we'd only do this on holidays,” John said.

        “We never set up this lunch,” Mike added.

        “My wife just writes "Boys' Lunch' on the calendar every Friday,” John said.

        Bob insisted they go to the Echo just for the sandwiches. I wasn't convinced. There were tell-tale signs the four get together for the company first, sandwiches second.

        The gentle kidding that goes around the table is one sign.

        “If you have thin skin, you won't survive long around here,” Bob said. “We're not abusive. We don't use cusswords. But we're always needling each other.”

        Mike gets razzed about his golf game. Bob takes a ribbing for buying toys, like a $21,000 tractor to cut the grass on his 11/2-acre lot. John is teased for being retired at age 54.

        The way they look at one another is another dead giveaway. The brothers welcome one another with smiles that never fade throughout the lunch hour.

        The sons cast admiring glances at their dad. When he speaks, they listen. They respect him and his 84 years.

        Bernie is proud of his sons. “They've done well in life,” he said, “and they are married to good women.” He listens intently when they speak. And he plays no favorites.

        “He's always been good at making us all feel special,” John said, “while treating us all the same.”

        They savor one another's presence and count their blessings. To them, good luck is meeting every Friday at the Echo where the fish sandwiches are great and the company at the Strunks' table is even better.


        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.