The Panthers may disagree on which restaurant has the best deal, recall conflicting details from parties long ago or argue over plans for an upcoming event, but all 50 members of the “boys only” club can agree on one thing: Every other Tuesday they may yell and scream at each other during a dinner business meeting, but they will always walk out arm in arm, the best of friends.
At a recent Panther Club meeting, a roomful of men in their 70s and 80s gathered at the Olive Branch in Pikesville, a favorite spot among members, but the energy electrifying the room felt more like a gaggle of teenagers, eager to shoot the breeze with their buddies. Before getting down to business, they laughed and shouted to each other as they drifted from table to table, gossiping with friends that, for many of them, they likely lunched with earlier that day or played golf with the day before.
“We stay together because — the same old story,” said Nathan Silver, 87, a Panther Club founding member. “We went to club meetings and we argued, but the minute the meeting was over we walked out of the room and had our arms around each other, and we just went home like nothing ever happened. So we were just a bunch of good, honest-to-goodness guys who got along with each other. And we stayed together because of that.”
Continued Silver, it’s also “because we have fun, we enjoy each other and, sorry to say, but we never let the wives interfere with anything that we did.”
Last month, the Panther Club celebrated its 75th anniversary with a two-day gala including a dinner dance at the Martins Valley Mansion and a brunch with musical entertainment and officer installation at Martins Westminster, both venues a long way from their humble beginnings in 1940 at the Jewish Educational Association (JEA) at 1216 E. Baltimore St., the precursor to the Jewish Community Center. JEA organizers formed clubs and offered activities as a destination for young Jewish teens to socialize and better themselves. Nate Berlin and Jerry Scher organized the club and supervised the meetings.
“Most of the fellas walked from Patterson Park every Tuesday night — rain, snow, shine, down to the JEA, about 12 or 13 blocks away,” said David Jacobs, 85, a member for 73 years, who was nearly a founding member but the newly instated must-be-bar-mitzvahed rule meant he had to wait.
“We’d fight, holler, scream at one another about which girl we took out, where was the next basketball game and getting set up for Sunday to play softball,” recalled Jacobs. “If we did homework — because we all went to City College — we would trade answers.”
Other nights “we did wrestling, we had basketball in the basement — it was a postage-size court,” said Silver. “We played volleyball, and in Patterson Park we did track meets” on Sundays and also played softball at Clifton, Patterson and Druid Hill parks.“They’d train you how to speak” too, and “some guys became lawyers and doctors and some of us did manual work. But we all had fun.”
From its inception and maintained to this day, the Panther Club is about having a good time.
One particularly good time recalled by several members was a party orchestrated by Jacobs that began with roller-skating at Collins Park in the former Park Circle area and ended with a cookout at Camp Wonderland on Liberty Road with a “straw ride” for transport between the locations. But because of the “great deal” Jacobs got on the truck, he said, what arrived was a closed-bed wagon so the whole lot of boys and girls rode together in the complete dark (due to the door being closed for safety reasons), and the memory still brings huge smiles to many Panther faces.
“Hands were flying all over the place to tell you the truth,” said Jacobs laughing, and after that, “they said they’d never let me throw another affair.”
The Panthers were known for hosting epic New Year’s Eve galas that were open to the public and they would rent out synagogue social halls and
hotels for the events. The men go all-out for anniversary affairs too that in the past included destinations such as upstate New York and even a Bermuda cruise. Said Silver, “We lived it up, we did it right.”
But after their first anniversary gala, said Jacobs, the Panthers could never go back to the Lord Baltimore Hotel because the club members and their dates — many never having seen such fancy surroundings — took home souvenirs in the form of forks, spoons and even plates decorated with the hotel’s fancy logo.
“And as we got older, we had dances on the roofs, and the girls would come from Park Heights and Forest Park, which was alien to us because the only way we could get up there was by street car; we didn’t have money for cabs,” said Jacobs. Often “we would all meet up at the Imperial bowling alley” not to bowl, just to hang out together, and many a Panther met his future wife at the numerous girls’ parties the boys crashed.
Other clubs were formed at the JEA too, such as the Greyhound Club, the Titans, the Trojans and the Olympic and Pioneer clubs — they were meet-up groups designed for each age and for both boys and girls. But the Panthers are by far the most enduring, they said, and the name came to the group in an unexpected way.
“When we started meeting, some of us walked to Simon Harris sporting goods on Gay Street,” saidSilver, and when “we got there, the guy [working] said he had a return” on jackets that had panther images on them. “And, he said, ‘You can have them for $3.’ So we thought it was a great deal and bought them. That’s how it started.”
After the JEA building closed, Jacobs said they continued to meet at the YMHA, and as the group grew up and men entered into and returned from the service — World War II and the Korean War — members married and started families, but the guys remained a tight-knit group. They couldn’t afford a rental space to meet so Jacobs volunteered his parent’s home on Mortimer Avenue, where they “would come every Tuesday night for a meeting, hollering and screaming,” for about 10 years. When Jacobs married, the group met at his home.
But “when they left [each meeting], they put their cigar and cigarette butts into my wife’s flower pots so we got thrown out,” said Jacobs. “That’s when we started going to different restaurants,” to meet. That was about 30 years ago.
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Make no bones about it, explained Alvin Singer, 84, and at 16 years one of the newer members, the Panther Club “is strictly social.” In the earlier years, the Panthers hosted some charity events and an annual party at the Happy Hills children’s convalescent home, but as the members grew older each became involved in his own philanthropic work.
“We meet 26 times [on Tuesdays], and six times a year we get together with our women” and have events and galas that might feature music and performances. Singer, who chaired the 75th anniversary gala committee, said it requires a little more than $1,000 a year to be a member and attend all of the social events, which are all slightly subsidized.
“It tells you what we are, we’re a group of social-minded people who want to enjoy our lives at our age,” said Singer. “It keeps you young. It keeps your mind going, you don’t sit around the house watching television all day; it’s a great feeling. Yes, it’s a club of older guys, but these are older young guys if you know what I mean. And age is just a number.”
Securing membership isn’t only a financial matter. New members — age 65 is the youngest they’ll consider — only qualify following a very specific protocol.
When a Panther wants to introduce a potential new member to the group, explained Singer, he must bring up the person’s name at three consecutive meetings stating his desire. At each meeting if even just one man has an objection to bringing the person in as a new member, they are not considered.
If the potential new member passes that hurdle, then a small committee interviews him at home, and he then attends four consecutive meetings, “where he gets to meet people, and during that time we’ll have an affair and we’ll get to meet his wife and see how he acts at socials,” said Singer. “Then after that, he gets voted on. So it’s not an easy process getting in, and yet we still fill our roster, and it’s been very successful.”
Robert Cohan, 76, joined the Panther Club only a year ago. The new-member process was involved but worth it, he said, because “I had 50 new friends right off the bat, I was treated like one of the old guys who had been there forever, and I’ve been welcomed ever since. It’s been very overwhelming the welcome I’ve gotten. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Though it was more than 30 years ago when Bernie Sher, 82, became a Panther, he remembers it felt like “instant family” and added that attending the meetings, affairs and seeing his friends regularly “gives you a purpose. There’s always something to look forward to, always something happening.”
“Having that bond, that friendship — that there’s a core group of men like that is phenomenal,” said recreational therapist Jamilah Bashir at LifeBridge Health and Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.
“That friend is important to socialize with, but they are also keeping an eye on you,” she continued. “And if [someone is] having a bad day, they’re still going get up to go see their friends, and those friends are going to be advocates,” such as if someone isn’t taking their medications or seems depressed, friends are going to notice and can let family members know, she said.
The danger is when people feel they can’t do the same activities anymore, and instead of adjusting their activity, they stop all together and start declining, said Bashir. “And when that happens they start to deteriorate.”
Bashir cited research in the “American Journal of Recreation Therapy” that pointed to cognitive and social engagement as critical for people to remain independent, active and maximize their quality of life into their senior years.
“It’s the best therapy they can get at this point in their lives,” Bashir said. “They are probably the best therapy for each other.”
Small offshoot groups have formed from within the Panther Club, groups that are in sync with the idea of “friends as therapy.”
There is a group of widowers that meets for lunch on alternate Tuesdays, and the ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) get together regularly as well. One Panther will fix another up if someone is single, and there has even been recoupling of widows and widowers over the years as well. Like any group it naturally has some cliques too, said several members, but nothing that prevents everyone from getting along and remaining very close.
“The guys are close but the wives are even closer,” added immediate past president Jim Barrish, 78, a member for 14 years and originally from Philadelphia. “My wife receives between 10 and 12 calls a day” from other members’ wives. “They love the affairs and they love the Tuesday nights without us.”
Though the social aspect is what drives the Panthers, the support members receive right up until the end is extraordinary.
If a member becomes ill, there is an announcement and a phone chain in place so people can visit, call or send a card. If a member needs a ride to the doctor, it’s arranged. Members’ widows receive $1,000, a separate donation made by the members. And the staff at Sol Levinson’s knows that if a Panther member has passed, at the funeral service the group is called upon as an honor guard, and members line the aisle en masse, typically 30 to 40 of them, each kissing the casket as it passes as a goodbye gesture.
Said Barrish, “It could be a new member or a man in there for 72 years, we would be there. So it’s not just a Tuesday night, it’s your whole way of life. It’s wonderful.”
Eddie Baumell, 86, a Panther for 72 years, was a scrappy teen working at the New Model Cab Co. and Baumell Brothers garage, both owned by his uncle and located around the corner from JEA; that’s how he met Jacobs, Silver and several others.
“They really sort of settled me down,” said Baumell. “I don’t want to say saved my life, but [Panther involvement] made me more of a person. It made me feel a part of something and that I wasn’t out there by myself. I could be with a bunch of guys who were great.”
Now, Baumell said, the friendships have grown to feel like extended family. Members know each other’s kids and grandkids, and if someone needs a favor, it’s done.
Baumell said the Panthers have stayed together because “I think we all love life. We get mad at each other, but I think the bottom line is that we respect and enjoy each other.”