An up-north reunion tradition

Every year a group of Port High graduates now in their 60s spends a weekend roughing it in the woods, playing pool and reuniting with longtime friends

This year’s Kibber Pool Tournament participants, all Port Washington High School grads, included (front row, from left), Dave Krier of Boscobel, Bill Henkle of Port, (second row) Perry Perkins of the Hartland area, Rick Lanser of Cedarburg, (third row) Barney Bannon of Port, Mark Koenig of Cedarburg (blue cap), Joe Schwenker of Whitefish Bay, Paul Neerhof of South Carolina, (back row) Jack Rooney of Mequon and Jim Jushka of the Town of Port Washington. Members not attending this year were: Wally Krier (deceased), Todd Galles and Chuck Wallisch. Photo courtesy of Jack Rooney
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

They were paper boys, altar boys and friends beginning in kindergarten at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Port Washington and even before that. Some played on the Atomic Roosters intramural basketball team at Port High. Many attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While they started families and worked in an eclectic mix of professions across the country, one thing has held a group of 1976 and 1977 Port High grads together — the Kibber Pool Tournament.

The 45th event was held Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 in Athelstane, a town of 601 people 17 miles north of Crivitz.

For as many as 13 guys in their early 60s — some have retired and become grandfathers — the guys’ weekend becomes even more precious, especially after the group lost Wally Krier in 2017.

“Having good friends is a blessing in and of itself,” Bill Henkle, pastoral coordinator for St. John XXIII Parish, said. “I certainly consider it one of the highlights of my life.”

Jack Rooney of Mequon organizes the event, now via emails and texts instead of phone as needed in the early years of the event.

 The Kibber starts on a Friday night. Rooney and Henkle begin by visiting one of their favorite teachers, former Port High social studies teacher John Tauscher. Henkle later taught with him and became his boss when he was named principal.

“That’s really become special,” Henkle said.

Then they meet the rest of the group for a shot of Jaegermeister at Schooner Pub in Port, then head up to the Nimrod Inn for a fish fry and drinks in “downtown” Athelstane.

Late that evening, the group heads to a tiny wood cabin without running water that is heated with a wood-burning stove.

The next morning, it’s off to Ranger Family Restaurant 9 miles away for breakfast.

For lunch, the group heads to Steve O’s Corner Pub & Grill in Crivitz, and then back to the cabin where several guys play sheepshead and others drive around looking for wildlife. Then it’s off to the Nimrod again for the pool tournament and bar dice.

After two long, late nights, the friends — a group Rooney calls “a reflection of a small-town Port of the ’60s” — are usually on the road for home by 9 a.m. Sunday.

Much like the soundtrack for the weekend — “I don’t think we listen to anything that was recorded after 1975,” Rooney said — they can check out of the cabin anytime they like but they can never leave, at least when it comes to their friendships. The pool tournament is the hook, but the real focus is the camaraderie among cherished classmates.

“We tell the same old stories each year, but you know what, they never get old,” Perry Perkins of the Hartland area said.

Some of the conversations have shifted over the years from their children to grandchildren and now to some health ailments.

Their wives and children have come to accept their husbands and fathers’ trips. Paul Neerhof estimates he has spent $40,000 in his lifetime to commute from South Carolina to the event.

“My wife has never, ever, ever, suggested that I shouldn’t be taking that time away from the family or spending that money,” he said. “That’s an unbreakable commitment to go to the Kibber.”

Regardless of their backgrounds, the guys turn back into 17-year-olds during the weekend.

“Check your ego at the door because there are none up there,” Mark Koenig of Cedarburg said. “It’s a rewind back to childhood.”

Just getting to the tournament in the dead of winter can be a challenge, but participants rarely let weather get in the way.

En route from Hawaii one year, Todd Galles’ plane had to land in Chicago instead of Milwaukee because of a snowstorm. He rented a car and had to detour around I-43, which was also closed.

“When he walked in, it literally brought tears to my eyes,” Henkle said.

They once had to push Joe Schwenker’s Lexus about 100 yards up the snow-covered gravel driveway to the cabin.

The event began not long after the friends graduated from Port High. Jim Jushka, whose nickname is Kibber, built a rec room at his parents’ Town of Port Washington home and one year invited friends who were back from college for

Christmas over for a night of pool and a dinner of wild game. The rest is history.

The event has been held a few times at various locations, but mostly at the cabin Jushka built in Athelstane. He sold it 25 years ago to a neighbor who lets the guys use it.

The group crams into the cabin’s 850 square feet to fall asleep to sounds Neerhof described as “snoring and musical bodily releases.” Some guys lie on the floor and others are in a loft that reaches 90 degrees by morning.

“I’m in the bathroom on a cot with my feet sticking out the door because it isn’t long enough,” Rick Lanser, owner of The Hub at Cedar Creek in Cedarburg, said.

This year, the group rented a trailer that has a bunk bed, but Lanser said the bed was plywood with a piece of cloth on it and he “might as well have been sleeping on the floor.”

In winter when the water in the cabin is turned off, the bathroom is a nearby outhouse called The Jawbreaker Hotel. Barney Bannon called it “one of the most peaceful parts of the whole trip.”

Perkins used it once in his life. “Words cannot explain The Jawbreaker,” he said.

As for the tournament, some participants take it more seriously than others. Krier, who shot pool in a weekly league and was regularly razzed for bringing his own cue, was in it to win it, which reminded Perkins of one of his favorite stories.

Krier drew a bye and “was all jacked up about it,” he said. Perkins tried to get in Krier’s head by saying not playing that first game was a disadvantage.

When it came time for Krier to play, Jushka won the coin toss and elected to break. He made the 8-ball on the break, which is an automatic win, according to Kibber rules.

“To this day, I can picture Walt (Wally) sitting on the barstool. He never took one shot in that singles tournament,” Perkins said. “We felt so bad for him, but we laughed until we cried.”

The year before Krier died, however, he won the tournament.

Jushka added a traveling trophy this year, a decanter with a pheasant on it that dates back to when his old rec room was built. Like the Kibber, it’s 45 years old.

“Those little things are so meaningful and so neat you can’t put a price on it,” he said.

Dave Krier, Wally’s cousin, remembers one year he “ran the table” on Perkins and won the title. As editor of the Boscobel Dial, he wrote about the Kibber in a column and got feedback about its rarity.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of people that even have 12 friends,” Jushka said. “I could count on these 12 people anytime.”

Another thing they can count on is the Kibber going until no one is left.

“I can speak for every one of the guys. The last man standing, turn out the light,” Schwenker said.

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