Larry LaRue

This group’s ‘20-year conversation’ is still going strong in Browns Point

All Don Halabisky wanted was regular adult conversation.

It was so rare to find that he talked about it one night at dinner with friends.

“Don said there wasn’t the opportunity for the adult conversation that we all used to have at our kids’ soccer games,” recalls family friend Kate Gould. “He said his neighbors drove home, closed their garage doors, and that was it.”

Halabisky’s wife, Heather, remembers the light-bulb moment that night.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we get people together?’ ” she said. “Don sent a letter out to people he knew, and everyone we invited came.”

The result was a conversation club members called the Renaissance Group — and 21 years later, it’s still going.

“Over the years the membership has changed a bit,” Heather Halabisky said. “Two died, and a couple people moved away, but we’re pretty much the same bunch.”

Halabisky wanted diversity, so he invited couples, which gave him an even number of men and women. He recruited a liberal pediatrician and a conservative in the military.

“The best discussions come with different points of view,” he said.

And then he invited everyone to his Browns Point home on the second Saturday of every month.

It worked, and still does.

“I’ve never heard of another group like it,” original member Greg Magee said. “My dad taught at UPS, and my parents had a group of friends, five to seven people who’d get together for a cocktail, maybe go to dinner afterward.

“Now society seems cut off from that kind of engagement.”

When the group began, Halabisky was 51 and most of the members were younger. Today, he is 72, the youngest member is 60, and they’re all still talking.

“We’ve grown older together,” Heather Halabisky said. “Most of us are old and left-wing. We had more Republicans in the beginning, but we wore some of them down and now they’re liberals. We lost our last conservative couple when they moved to Florida a few years ago.”

That doesn’t mean the Renaissance Group always agrees.

“It’s been like a 20-year conversation,” Gould said. “We’ve talked about the meaning of life, happiness, education, politics. And every month, you walk out of there with some new insight.”

There have been emotional debates — like the meeting to which they asked two guests, a Palestinian and a Jew, to discuss the Middle East.

One rule from the start has been civility.

“We respect others’ opinions, and there has to be a trust level,” Don Halabisky said. “You have to know you can say what you feel without someone jumping all over you.”

Every meeting has a topic — past conversations included “what is happiness?” and Obamacare — and each opens with 30 minutes of socializing.

“As you get older, the tendency is to talk about your grandchildren and your ailments — and we do that, before our topic begins,” said Nancy Magee. “When we started, most of us didn’t know each other.

“What’s developed is a community. We genuinely care about one another.”

Meeting each month at the same place has been a plus — and meeting at the Halabisky home was a stroke of genius.

“I thought everyone would be more comfortable if no one else had to worry about getting their house ready for 15 to 16 people,” Don Halabisky said.

Greg Magee laughed at that.

“That’s been a key ingredient, the comfort level at their house,” he said. “If we’d moved around each month, some people wouldn’t have been as comfortable.”

The group began with 16 or 18 members; no one seems to remember exactly. Today there are 17. On any given month, 10 to 12 will attend. And there are rules — effective yet casual.

“We don’t shake our fingers at people,” Heather Halabisky said.

Each month has a volunteer moderator. Disagreements are happily allowed, but no one can talk over another member by raising his or her voice.

“We’ve had our share of disagreements, but no one has ever left the group because of one,” she said.

Always, the goal is the same: adult conversation. Rarely has it not occurred.

“I look forward to those Saturdays” Greg Magee said. “I know I’m going to have a conversation with somebody, and I’m never disappointed.”

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