franklin social group values laughter, conversation and camaraderie
By Jon Shoulders
»Take a morning walk down Court Street in downtown Franklin and at some point you might hear the rumblings of lively discussion, occasionally punctuated by collective laughter, coming from just outside Benjamin’s Coffeehouse. It’s an infectious and inviting sound, emanating from a group of locals who, for the past three years, have gathered regularly at the establishment to sip, laugh, discourse, debate and — to their own surprise — become close friends.
Terry Bayless, a semi-retired environmental health specialist with the Johnson County Health Department, began frequent morning visits to Benjamin’s after retiring from full-time work approximately four years ago and found the atmosphere comfortable and conducive to casual banter with fellow patrons. “I would just sit in the back and very casually talk to people,” Bayless recalls. “It just morphed and grew, and eventually we started sitting outside, at least in the summer months, when the group got a little bigger. It was never a planned thing. It kind of evolved.”
Perhaps the most unexpected part of that evolution to Les Tabeling, a former banker and current Benjamin’s regular, is the level of companionship that has arisen among a collection of individuals he describes as having a wide range of personalities and perspectives. “We all have varied viewpoints about most everything,” says Tabeling, a Franklin native. While there are 16 to 18 individuals who might show up throughout different days of the week to partake in the morning meet-ups, which usually occur from Tuesday through Friday, the core members tend to include Tabeling, Bayless, Mike McElwain, a semi-retired Johnson County sheriff; Frank Dean, a regional musician and owner of Frank’s Guitars on Jefferson Street; Tommy Morrison, owner of Franklin Coin Shop also on Jefferson; and Bill Dever, owner of Franklin-based Polyscope Media Group, a communications services company.
Discussion topics du jour can range from the music of the Beatles to global affairs to local politics, such as the Johnson County library referendum that occurred a few years ago. “I think what we’ve come to do in the last year or so is try to define ourselves by the things we have in common, not our differences, and that’s not always easy because we do have those varied viewpoints on so many things,” says Tabeling, adding that the group’s official name is the G.O.T., although the full name remains a member secret. “I think we’ve become more tolerant of each other’s viewpoints. It’s been a lot of fun, and I look forward to it. And, of course, we always give each other a hard time, but that’s part of it.”
Even employees at the Johnson County courts building, which sits opposite Benjamin’s across Court Street, have experienced the group’s occasionally boisterous banter. “One of my friends works there, and he sent me a message one morning saying, ‘We can hear you all the way over here at the courthouse, and you guys are so funny you’re breaking us up over here,’” Tabeling says with a hearty laugh. “As the morning rolls on, I guess we can have a little too much fun sometimes.”
In 2013 Benjamin’s was vandalized during late night hours, and the next day the group promptly came to the aid of the establishment it had become so fond of. “Somebody had come up with a bucket of paint and covered the entire storefront in white paint,” says Jeff Friedgood, a Franklin-based Benjamin’s regular who teaches at Columbus North High School. “We came here with a power sprayer, and all chipped in and cleaned it all up for them. In about two hours we had it about as clean as you can get it. It goes to show that when you have a group like ours meeting out in the community, it goes beyond just the members of that group.”