Regrouping: Marin men’s group sticks together for over 40 years

I was recently invited to meet with eight men in a beautiful home perched on a hill in San Rafael. They wanted to share the remarkable story of their deep-rooted friendships that have lasted more than four decades.

Together, the men, who are in their 70s and 80s, have experienced marriages, the birth of children and grandchildren, divorces, coming out, careers, career changes, retirement, aging, illness and death.

They weren’t school chums or fraternity brothers. Their odyssey began when some of the men answered an ad that two therapists ran in the Point Reyes Light newspaper on Oct. 13, 1977.

“Group for men forming. Sharing and learning. Grow towards more personal and interpersonal clarity, sensitivity and power. For more information, call Bill Schutt and Peter Beck.”

Though there were originally about a dozen men in the group, nine stuck together. Stan, Joel, Steve, Ken, Leif, Joe, Jim, Dan and Harry. Some responded directly to the ad, while a few were recruited. Leif invited Harry. Harry then enlisted Stan, the last to join.

They were young fellows, mostly concerned about relationships. Little did they know at the time, this group would forge some of the longest relationships of their lives—they’re still together almost 44 years later, with the exception of Harry, who passed away.

Therapists Beck and Schutt initially led the group, and the members paid them to attend the meetings, which took place at Schutt’s home in San Anselmo. Beck moved out of the area after a few years, but the group continued under Schutt.

“It was a time when men’s groups were being seen as a useful tool,” Leif said. “We started out as a therapy group.”

During the sessions, they went around the room to “check in.” Each man had the opportunity to speak uninterrupted, with no time limit. They each learned to hear people out. Schutt taught the men that they weren’t there to fix each other or to become perfect.

After the meetings, sans therapists, the members likely as not ended up at the now-defunct Spanky’s Restaurant in Fairfax, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and bonding. Eventually, the nine members came to the realization that they enjoyed each other’s company and didn’t necessarily need to keep paying a professional to lead their meetings.

They decided to say goodbye to Shutt and save the therapy fees. Jim opened a bank account under the name R.E. Group, as in “regroup.” They used the funds for an annual group event with their partners.

“Our significant others were left home every Thursday night with crying babies,” Joe, who has been married since before the group formed, said. “We took the money and took them out once a year for our grand Christmas dinner in the city. We still do that. Before Covid, we had a fantastic meal in Oakland and went to a concert at a cathedral.”

Although many of the men had crying babies at home—between them, they have 11 children and nine grandchildren—some didn’t. 

Stan never married, and his longest romantic relationship lasted a year. The group, he says, is his social anchor.

Leif was married to a woman and then divorced. He came out as gay to the group before telling anyone else. Today, he’s been with his partner, Mark, for 42 years. All the men in the group spoke at their wedding.

Dan was also married to a woman, had a daughter and divorced. He, too, came out as gay in the place he felt most comfortable: the group.

“It was [in] transitioning from being a straight man to a gay man that I got enormous support from this group,” Dan said. “To come to that realization in one’s life, ‘I’m not straight, I am gay,’ for me, was tough.”

The men say they have an inherent commitment to the group, which is greater than the sum of its parts. It provides constancy and ballast in their lives. They care about each other; however, what binds them is more than friendship, because sometimes they don’t like each other.

“It’s another family,” Jim said. “When the immediate family is falling apart, the men’s group is a family you can go to for a reality check and understanding. It’s a really valuable thing.”

These days, they still meet regularly, but they haven’t had a group therapist in years, they’ve given up the smokes and drinking consists mostly of soft beverages. The meetings run in much the same way as when the men worked with the therapists. They meet on the first and third Thursday of every month for dinner, and they take turns hosting. There are two leaders, and they rotate the positions. The men still check-in, although sometimes they have more of a freeform conversation. At other times, the leader throws out a topic for the group to discuss.

Covid has been but a little blip to them. The group continued on Zoom during most of the past year, and they recently resumed their in-person gatherings.

Adamant that their group did not grow out of the New Age movement, the men heartily laugh as they admit to participating in one drumming circle, one biofeedback session and one sweat lodge ceremony. They also met with a women’s group once. In the ’80s, they appeared on the television show People Are Talking with a sex therapist from Mill Valley—though she did most of the talking.

During my meeting with the men, they talked about their significant memories, such as the time they asked Jim to leave. Jim was using “heavy duty” painkillers for acute neck pain, lost his job, got divorced and was depressed, all of which affected his relationships with group members. Though Jim says being without the group was a low point of his life, he mended fences within a couple of years and was welcomed back.

Harry, who died of melanoma 27 years ago, was another major subject. He was the eldest member and would now be 87.

With a larger-than-life personality, Harry was a successful graphic designer, responsible for the graphic identity of the original Gap stores. The men described Harry as powerful and competitive. His illness and death were also powerful.

At one of their annual group retreats, Harry announced he had melanoma. Already a year into his fatal disease by then, he had delayed telling them to avoid being treated differently.

The group immediately became Harry’s attendants, meeting mostly at his home. Although he underwent experimental immunotherapy, he began wasting away. An interesting phenomenon occurred during Harry’s prolonged illness. He decided to be blunt with each member of the group about how he felt about them. Needless to say, his words were met with mixed reactions. Harry lost his battle with cancer in 1994. Stan and Leif were at his bedside when he died, each holding one of Harry’s hands as tears streamed down their faces.

Aging and death are recurring themes in the group’s meetings. In their earlier days, they spoke of “growing old together.” Today, all the men have medical issues. While none of the issues are incapacitating, they say there have been some frightful moments. They added a sobering thought—one man will be the first to go, and one will be the last man standing.

While the group may discuss the Grim Reaper, the members certainly aren’t sitting around waiting for him to appear. In recent years they’ve rafted down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, gone on backpacking expeditions together and taken annual ski trips.

As they approach their 44th anniversary together, the men contemplate the reasons for their group’s success. The annual retreats, where they spend three days together out of town, resonate with all of them. They have the time to delve deeply and share what’s going on in their individual lives, and to also work out issues they have with each other. The sessions often become intense, yet the men say it brings them closer.

Aside from their foray into television decades ago, the group has never spoken publicly. It was a dilemma for some members to agree to meet with me, but in the end, they took the leap of faith with an altruistic motive in mind. Their lives have been dramatically enriched by developing their relationships within the group, and they want others to know what’s possible.

“We feel like we’re a special group,” Jim said. “We’re proud of our group. It’s a significant part of our lives, and we’re revealing ourselves to let people know men can do this.”

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