For Wednesday Lunch Group it's all about the conversation

Three members of the Wednesday Lunch Group are (from l) Wayne Kernodle, Jim McCord and Terry Meyers. For more than 50 years, a dozen William and Mary professors have spiced up a ritual Wednesday lunch by combining broad-ranging discussion of current events with scintillating bits of College gossip and history—all served with only the most subtly-seasoned hint of grandstanding.

Although the Wednesday Lunch Group, as it has come to be called, has been accused, among other things, of being elitist, or subversive—or even frivolous—its members persist.

Said co-founder Wayne Kernodle, an emeritus professor of sociology at the College, “We just get together and sit around, talk and enjoy each other. It’s informal. You don’t have to dress up, to be on your Ps and Qs or to watch what you say.”

“We might talk about something like the College restructuring one week. We were talking one day about Barksdale Field, then we started talking about what’s going on in Iraq. We do have varied opinions. We don’t take votes.”

No votes, no speakers, no bylaws, no agenda: In short, the only things members seem to anticipate while going to the Wednesday Lunch Group are one well-served meal and one single hour of hassle-free quality conversation.

 

Last semester, the group met at Berret’s restaurant in Merchant’s Square. Before that, it was the Trellis and Howard Johnson’s; more than 40 years ago it met in the President’s Dining Room itself, before President Alvin Duke Chandler, as some say, kicked them out—Chandler erroneously thought the group was trying to undermine his authority, Kernodle explained.

These days at Berret’s, each member is graciously welcomed—and immediately escorted to a table in the back—the very back.

“It’s not that it is a secret society, or anything like that,” suggested English professor Terry Meyers, who has been a member for the past five years. “We may be mysterious only in the fact that we are rather undefined.”

The reason the group is seated in the back is simple: Conversations can get loud. The particular conversation that resulted in the Wednesday Lunch Group being banished from the middle of Berrets to the rear involved Hooters, a restaurant chain known for its scantily dressed waitresses which was trying to expand to Williamsburg. “People were laughing and talking about the whole thing,” Meyers said. “It’s a comic subject. The restaurant staff came and asked us to tone it down. Apparently someone was not pleased that we were having fun with hooters.”

Hooters, like most subjects of discussion, came up because it was in the local news. During any lunch session, a topic like it can be thrown in with others ranging from national politics—“if there is a Republican among us, he or she is a very quiet Republican,” said history professor and six-year participant Judith Ewell, the group’s first woman member—to recent literature. Issues involving the College can become especially intriguing, as there are group members who “know where the bodies are buried,” Ewell said.

“Basically we’re just exchanging views,” said Jim McCord, chair of the College’s history department and a longtime group member. “We might talk about the budget, and Terry Meyers, who has made a special hobby of looking at athletic fees, will talk about that topic and enlighten us. Barksdale field has come up—almost anything about the College is grist for the mill, so to speak,” McCord said.

“But I don’t think people take set positions—it’s not a debating society. Like most conversations, we don’t even come to a conclusion.”

For his part, Meyers said he benefits just from sitting around a lunch table surrounded by “interesting people with quick wits.” Although he is not shy about making his opinions known, neither is any other group member, he pointed out. “The group is kind of an intersection of College news and College gossip and College history,” he explained. “Some people have been around for years and years. As we talk about what’s going on locally, almost always there’s some antecedent issue or anecdote. I enjoy that sense of continuity of academic generations—continuity of institution.”

As far as grandstanding, Meyers, who is known around campus for advocating numerous positions which often seem at odds with those of administrators—athletic fees and potential state monitoring of e-mail being two—said the lunch group can serve as a sounding board, but if the point is to have official input, his efforts are better pursued through appropriate committees.

Certainly the group never has petitioned the administration, all members agreed. When asked whether or not the current president of the College ever had been invited to a Wednesday lunch, the reaction was one of surprise. Responded Ewell, “I can’t imagine how that would go. Either we would all be trying to make our points on one of our pet issues, or he would be trying to make his points on whatever his issue was. Either way, that’s not where this group wants to go.”

Right now, the group seems content with going nowhere—it wants merely to continue. At some point, as the numbers thin, new candidates may have to be recruited. However, few will be admitted, and those only by invitation; there is no need to apply.

“Wayne [Kernodle] has a funny story about a law professor who heard about the group and announced that he wanted to be included,” related Meyers. “Wayne said, ‘Well that’s not the way things operate. People don’t invite themselves.’”

At that point the professor “got all huffy and claimed to have high-powered connections in Richmond, which didn’t impress Wayne too much,” Meyers continued. “Apparently this guy huffed and puffed and in the end nothing happened, and he left the College, as if not being invited to this august group was enough to send him off to some place else.”

“August.” Meyers laughed. It’s a joke. Like Hooters.

But there is a serious side. The group—indeed, similar groups on campus, whether they meet on Wednesdays for lunch or on other days around different activities—do meet a need.

McCord relates the Wednesday Lunch Group to a miniature faculty club.

“When I came to William and Mary, it was a smaller College and a smaller town, but there was more faculty social interaction” McCord said. “They sort of worked on the social business.” He appreciated opportunities to meet faculty from various schools as a way to exchange ideas. “In a sense, this luncheon group sort of provides that on a much smaller scale,” he said. “What I would love to see is a faculty group revived.”

Other members concurred—a broader exchange could be beneficial, but not at the expense of the Wednesday Lunch Group. For its purpose, between eight and 12 members seems optimal. Any more and, who knows, duties and committees may creep in and be assigned.

Besides, put more than a dozen people around a table and, while it may be easy enough for each individual to eat lunch, the talk becomes a struggle. And, for members of the Wednesday Lunch Group, it’s all about the conversation.