In May the U.S. Surgeon General said the nation was suffering a crisis of loneliness. That news has not made it into the clubroom of The Village Club, one of the largest private groups in Needham.
In his book “Bowling Alone,” written more than 20 years ago, Harvard University’s Robert Putnam argues that social connectedness in America has been deeply frayed, that our support system and sense of community have fallen victim to modern isolation. With the rise of social media, that trend seems to have accelerated.
Tom Denton, director of guidance for the Needham Public Schools from 2006-2022 and a member of the Needham Resilience Network, said COVID brought social isolation to crisis levels. “If you experience a sense of belonging, you’ll experience much less loneliness,” Denton said.
In Needham, however, the Village Club is part of a rich landscape of social groups that help combat this trend. On any afternoon, members of every age group — from the Silent Generation to millennials — share stories and repartee in the basement club room on Morton Street. “Camaraderie is one benefit of membership,” said Mike Fraini, a member of the club’s board of directors. “But so is helping someone who falls on hard times.”
Fraini said the club comes together to help members through some of life’s most difficult moments, such as cancer treatments or the loss of a loved one. Often, though, the needs are less dramatic. “If you need a sprinkler guy or an air conditioner guy, someone will connect you,” Fraini said.
In a soon to be released survey, the Needham Resilience Network discovered that levels of social connectedness in Needham are slightly higher than in the nation as a whole. “We’re a bit more close-knit,” Denton said.
The Village Club’s mission has always been focused on giving back to Needham, and its support is felt all around town. It sponsors the Touchdown Club for Needham Football; Needham Baseball and Softball Opening Day; scholarships for Needham youth; and the Needham High School Booster Club’s Christmas tree sales. It also contributes to the Charles River Arc, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the American Red Cross. The club also built the first playground at Greene’s Field, the stone arch entrance way and water pavilion at Memorial Field, and the picnic tables at DeFazio Park — and many of the town’s sports fields are named after club members: Mario “Mike” DeFazio; Asa Small Jr.; Philip Claxton; John Cusick.
If the camaraderie and public service aren’t enough to brighten a member’s day, there are always hard fought games of horseshoes or Keno being played. And in addition to a deep person-to-person network, the clubroom offers pints of beer for $4.75 — though a sign behind the bar warns that whining costs $5.
According to club president Rob Giumetti, The Village Club is the only place in town where you can sit down with a drink and play Keno. It’s a place where people know more than just your name.
The club was founded in 1914 by William H. Carter, vice president of The William Carter Co. William H. Carter was the son of English immigrant William Carter, the founder of Carter’s, the underwear manufacturer that set up shop in Needham in 1865. It was the town’s most important business.
Around the Carter’s factories in Needham Heights — then known as Highlandville — the knitting and textile industry developed. The town’s leading businessmen formed a club to both socialize and to promote charitable undertakings. The Village Club began above what is now Starbucks at the corner of Highland Avenue and West Street. In 1953 it moved to its current location on Morton Street, complete with a spacious banquet room and a rustically elegant clubroom and bar.
As a private entity, the Village Club was allowed to serve alcohol throughout the dry decades in Needham. Members remained mum when asked to discuss what was served in the clubroom during Prohibition.
Although the founding members were involved in textile operations, today’s membership represents more occupational diversity. “We have a lot of trades people,”said Fraini. “But we have some of everybody,”
The club remained all-male until its 100th anniversary in 2014. Giumetti estimates the club is now 25% female. And although still a minority, “Most of our active members who participate are women,” he said.
Around the time of that milestone, Fraini said membership was declining. But that trend has been reversed.
“Many newcomers to Needham have joined the Village Club and have made many new friends,” Fraini said. After joining, they dive into volunteer projects, and often become involved with other Needham organizations.
To become a member, individuals go through a three-month trial during which they attend bimonthly meetings and hobnob in the bar room. “The candidate is asked to participate as an active member,” Giumetti said. After the trial period, the board of directors votes whether to offer membership.
Financial assistance is available, and club membership, currently $125 a year, is never revoked for those who have fallen behind on payments.
The Village Club is open every evening of the year except summer Saturdays. The group has donated use of their banquet hall to numerous organizations, and they also rent it out for private use.
Needham resident Bob Baker is a retired educator and curriculum writer.