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Love powers women’s social club through 70 years

It was a way for young women to have fun.

Through the decades, it meant evenings of relaxation, games and camaraderie.

Now, it remains – a testament to the enduring power of friendship, and a connection to a time of youth, long vanished.

This is Phi De Si.

Started 70 years ago last month by a group of North Tonawanda friends, the group – they call it “the club” – persists to this day.

This weekend, four remaining local members of the longstanding, informal group of Western New York women gathered in a social room inside the skilled nursing facility where one of the women now lives.

They shared memories.

Of the food they ate and the drinks they liked – goulash, strawberry pie, coffee.

Of the games they enjoyed – cards, including euchre and pinochle, as well as Yahtzee.

And of their official color – deep orchid – and the special sweaters they once wore, bearing the insignia of the society.

The four women – at its largest, the group numbered about a dozen, but the membership has changed over the years – also played dominoes and munched on snacks, including chocolate chip cookies.

“I don’t think we could count it,” one member, Gloria Jackson, said of how many times the club has gotten together over the years.

The four remaining members of Phi De Si – also spelled Phi Di Si – who got together in the DeGraff Hospital skilled nursing meeting room on Saturday included Jackson, whose maiden name was Grawe, and who graduated from North Tonawanda High School in 1948; Jean Watters, nee Richert, who graduated from the City of Tonawanda High School in 1945; Dorothy Curtis, whose maiden name was Schroeder, and who attended North Tonawanda High School; and Betty Zuch, born Maerten, a 1946 graduate of North Tonawanda High.

Jackson, Curtis and Zuch are among the group’s founders. Watters joined a year or two after it began. And that was in April 1946 – a fact borne out by the club’s preserved written records, which include detailed minutes from some meetings.

In an entry dated April 11, 1946, and written in cursive script on notebook paper, a club record reads: “A name for the club was decided upon as the ‘Phi-De-Si.”

A translation next to the title phrase indicated that philo meant loving, demos meant people, and sirens was meant to convey glamour.

The minutes of April 11, 1946, also show that club members partook in a “delicious lunch” – including macaroni salad, pickles, crackers, ice cream cake and coffee.

They also discussed at that early point in their history the adoption of an official color. “Orchid sweaters with white letters and skirts,” would be worn by members, the notes read.

Together, the Phi De Si-ers have done lots of things over the decades.

They used to meet more frequently – weekly or biweekly, in a member’s home, for refreshments and games. The tone of these gatherings would often strive for elegance, the members said. They recalled using their best china and silver.

“We always had candlelight,” said Jackson.

They would go out to dinner as a group.

“We used to go out for dinner, for Christmas,” said Watters.

They also went out for fun.

“We went sledding. We went on picnics. We went to Crystal Beach,” recalled Watters, who joined around 1948 and said the group “just liked being together.”

The club did take some summers off, members said. And some members left town for periods, to live in other places; some returned.

No one can be sure, at this remove, whether the Phi De Si club has operated continuously and without any breaks for 70 years. Club members focused more on their history, and their connections, in conversations with The Buffalo News.

A story in The Tonawanda News in 1996 described the club as “50 years and still going strong.”

Jackson said club members would also be “secret pals” with other women in the group – giving and receiving gifts.

Nowadays, the group gets together about once a month. Their recent meeting was on a weekend afternoon.

Between them, the Phi De Si club members now have 23 grandchildren and 10 great-grandkids.

They also have irreplaceable memories. Zuch, reflecting on how the group kept going all those years, put it this way.

“I don’t know,” she said. “We just all loved each other, I guess.”