Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 3, 2013

SALISBURY — At first, the Out to Lunch Bunch limited its membership to eight women because that’s how many could fit into Barbara Eggert’s new van.

It really was a seven-passenger van, but Dot Gandy squeezed in by sitting on a stool.

One of the classic Out To Lunch Bunch stories involves the women traveling back from Goldsboro. At the height of 5 p.m. commuter traffic near Greensboro on Interstate 85, the van had a flat tire.

Eggert swung the vehicle onto a shoulder and reached for her CB radio to ask for assistance. Because the van was new, she wasn’t familiar with where its jack and spare tire were located.

And nobody seemed to be paying attention to her SOS on the CB.

Frustrated, she finally shouted into her microphone, “Isn’t anybody out there going to help us?”

It seemed as though they came out of nowhere. “There was a giant cloud of smoke and dust,” Eggert recalls.

Tractor-trailers had stopped on both sides of the interstate, and drivers jumped out of their cabs like an army of Good Samaritans.

The women received the help they needed. As the tire was changed, they found a chair for one gal in their group, Jan Versen, and set her down in the median so she could prop up her broken ankle (broken previously).

In all, it was quite a scene — eight women crowding around their heroic truck drivers — and quite the story to tell later.

For three decades now, the Out to Lunch Bunch has been having this kind of fun. “We’ve stuck together all these years,” Gandy says. “We’re faithful to each other.”

The group grew out of Newcomers Club meetings at the Salisbury Civic Center in 1983. All the women were recent transplants — many because of their husbands’ jobs. They came from places such as Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.

But there was something missing at those Newcomers meetings.

“We wanted to go to lunch,” Gandy says.

“We were dressed up with no place to go,” Eggert adds.

And so it started. The eight charter members began meeting once a month for lunch, which also led to several of them gathering an additional time to play bridge.

The bridge group still meets monthly, too.

The women often tried to eat out of town, so they could become familiar with other places in North Carolina. Their first lunch together incorporated a visit to the Christmas Show in Charlotte.

Other destinations have included places such as Raleigh, Asheville, Boone, Blowing Rock, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Holden Beach and out-of-state locations such as Charleston, W.Va., Cherry Grove, S.C., Cheraw, S.C., and Sugarland, Texas.

They still talk about sleeping on the floor at Dixie Nickell’s place at Holden Beach. Dixie’s dog slept with them.

And they kid Lois Paradowski about the time the elevator was out at her Cherry Grove beach condominium, forcing the girls to walk eight flights of stairs.

Versen has moved back to Texas, so a group of the girls went to see her.

“We had a blast down there,” Eggert says, remembering how they celebrated her and Paradowski’s birthdays. “We always create …”

“A scene,” Gandy says, finishing Eggert’s sentence. “We are noted for that.”

The lunches are seldom short and often turn into shopping, tours or visits to museums. When the Out to Lunch Bunch gets together around a table — as they did at Gandy’s house Tuesday — it can become raucous.

“We have been asked to leave one time,” Gandy recalls of a Charlotte restaurant. ”We were too loud.”

After 30 years, the group has been through a lot. Weddings. Funerals. Illnesses. Operations. Children. Grandchildren. Now, even great-grandchildren.

Whenever someone in the group faces a crisis, the others are there for support. Gandy just recently had a bout with cancer, for example. Several of the women have lost their spouses, and some of the past Out to Lunch Bunch members have died, too.

“If we need anything, it doesn’t matter what — all you have to do is call,” Gandy says.

Other group members have moved, yet still make a point to meet once a month, on either the fourth or fifth Wednesday. Though they remain active with the group, Eggert now lives in Rock Hill, S.C.; Nickell, in Charlotte.

These days, Gandy often is the van driver for the out-of-town excursions. She says the group tries to keep an active list of 12 members, who still keep in contact with eight others on the “inactive” list.

The active 12 include Gandy, Eggert, Nickell, Paradowski, Rosemary Sokolowski, Scout Lomax, Billie Simmons, Glenda Christie, Joy Hamilton, Ruby Jones, Kerry Morgan and Linda Presutti.

Seven of the women who had lunch at Gandy’s house posed for a picture Tuesday.

“This one removes all wrinkles, doesn’t it?” one of the women asked the photographer.

They had a lunch of chicken salad, sauerkraut salad and Korea salad, with deviled eggs on the side. Gandy started the meal off with her “Jelly Bean Prayer,” coming complete with a plastic packet of jelly beans.

On a side table, Gandy also had fashioned a jewelry tree, the ornaments for which were pictures of each Out To Lunch Bunch member.

Lomax says Dot is known for her sweaters. She seems to have 15 for every holiday — Christmas, Easter, July Fourth, St. Patrick’s Day and others.

“No, I don’t!” Gandy protests.

If you haven’t figured it out, spouses are not a part of this group, though Nickell says they’ve always been supportive.

Six of the women are planning a cruise to Bermuda together later this month. They used to take more regular trips to the beach every year, “when we could get in our bathing suits,” Gandy says.

They always celebrate Christmas at their December lunches, bringing one gift each, and they’ve had great November Thanksgiving dinners in the past at Nickell’s house.

All kinds of small-world connections have emerged for the women after 30 years. An example: The granddaughters of Lomax and Sokolowski are good friends and roommates together at N.C. State University.

The group says they have high standards for membership in the Out to Lunch Bunch. Simmons eased into the group because she could also play bridge, and she realized these ladies were for her.

“How did I get in?” Lomax asks, laughing. It helped that Lomax is Gandy’s neighbor.

Overall, the Out to Lunch Bunch is classy, sophisticated and exclusive, Eggert says.

“If you believe that,” Simmons adds, “I’ll tell you another one.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or