Every Thursday, 84-year-old Edwina Smith heads out to meet her close friends for lunch.
The five women enjoy a nice meal and a few laughs as they catch up with each other. They reminisce about their time together through the years, from cocktail parties and holiday celebrations to family outings.
But this is no ordinary group of ladies. These are members of the Turtle Club, whom Smith has been meeting with each week for more than 50 years.
What started out as a local social bowling club has evolved into a bond like no other, as the remaining five members of Williamsburg’s Turtle Club have shared life’s ups and downs with each other over the decades, including the loss of several club members.
“For us, it has always been about having fun,” Smith said. “Do you know anyone else who’s been getting together for 55 years? It’s astonishing.”
Smith first gathered with the Turtle Club ladies when one of her daughters was just a year old. It’s been so long since the women initially formed their friendship, that no one recalls when or how they first dubbed themselves the Turtle Club.
“I just thought it was because one of the ladies was always late to bowling, slow like a turtle,” said Turtle Club member Fran Pons.
“Turtles are hard on the outside, soft on the inside and willing to stick their necks out to get somewhere.”
Decades and memories have been lost to history, but the local club’s roots tie back to a loosely-structured national group. The Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles started out as a social drinking club for both men and women across the country during World War II. It is an informal word-of-mouth club with no real initiation, although there is a secret password that lets others know that a person is a “turtle.”
While they aren’t veterans themselves, the ladies of the Williamsburg Turtle Club still use the same secret password.
“Pilots for the U.S. Army Air Corps — before the Air Force existed — would blow off steam from dogfights with Nazi pilots and supporting bombing runs,” said Dave Crabill, turtleclub.us website founder.
“I don’t know why they picked the name, but there is a philosophy: ‘Turtles are bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, fearless and unafraid folk with a fighter pilot attitude. They think clean, have fun a lot, and recognize the fact that you never get any place without sticking your neck out.’
Another philosophy is simpler: “Turtles are hard on the outside, soft on the inside and willing to stick their necks out to get somewhere.”
Although there may be a password, there is nothing mysterious about the Turtle Club.
“It is not a secret society,” Ed Richardson said. Richardson’s late mother, Mary, or “T” as she was affectionately called by her friends, was an active member of the local Turtle Club before she died in November.
“My mom loved being a part of the Turtle Club,” said Richardson. “She always loved turtles. At one time, we had over 200 turtle figurines in our house. I always thought it was neat, and everyone had a lot of fun with it.”
For his parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, Richardson bought an oversized turtle lawn ornament that occupied a spot near the 12th hole of the golf course at his mother’s Kingsmill home.
“It always had a golf ball in its mouth,” Richardson said. “Everybody wanted that turtle.”
Turtle knickknacks and décor were always a sign of adoration for members of the Turtle Club.
“If anyone was going to give you a gift, it was a turtle,” said member Suzie Brooks.
At one point, there were at least a dozen Turtle Club members in Williamsburg. The daughter of Tommy Dorsey, a famous jazz musician from the 1920s and 1930s, was once a local member.
Today, there are five ladies left in the group. They continue to gather and share memories of the past 50 years, inviting their offspring along for the ride.
“All of these ladies are so full of wisdom and so fun with great senses of humor,” said Smith’s daughter, Helen Oderisi. “They’ve been through a lot. I’m very comfortable calling on any one of them for anything.”
Members of the Turtle Club have been through it all together: jobs, beach vacations, marriages, births, and deaths.
“We don’t see each other except on Thursdays,” said Brooks. “Thursday is our day. All this time, for me it’s been about friendship with a capital F. That’s all it’s ever been about.”