Playing the hand of a lifetime

A group of lifelong friends has found that the secret to preserving happy memories is to keep those memories alive at the poker table.

For one Monday a month since 2005, seven men who share nearly 70 years of history gather to play cards at the La Cañada Flintridge home of Dr. Mike Missakian.

The retired radiologist moved in with daughter Maylene Glidewell, also a physician, shortly after his wife passed away, bringing with him this simple ritual rooted back in his schoolboy days.

Each of the seven, now in their early 80s, graduated in 1947 or 1948 from George Washington High School in south Los Angeles, where the poker ritual began, with the gamblers playing for matchsticks.

All of them also went on from high school to attend college at UCLA, and most had already known each other from the halls of L.A.'s Horace Mann Junior High School.

Though marriage, careers and other life events have spread the friends out over three counties, games continued off and on throughout the years after each returned from military service in the 1950s.

"As life goes on you realize how rare it is to have a friend, a real friend — somebody that you don't want something from and they don't want anything from you," said Bob Creps, 80.

If there's a spokesman for the group, it's Creps, a former naval officer who made a career in the electronics industry and who now lives in Calabasas.

If there's a jokester, it's John Foder, Ed.D., who made a career in health education and who continues to write at He resides in Santa Barbara.

If there's a foreman, it's Fred Gherardi — Freddy Flintstone, jokes Foder, as Gherardi's life's work was in his family's L.A.-based masonry business, American Marble & Onyx.

Foder described Bill Nickerson, who ran his own insurance brokerage in Lomita and now who lives in Palos Verdes Estates, as quite skilled in the art of B.S. But if anything, he's a model of patience. Creps, it seems, is always interrupting him, or completing his sentences for him.

There's also Vince Punaro, of San Bernardino County, who has the youngest children and who brings an uncommon lust for life to the table.

He sits next to Missakian, the happy host and careful listener who the UCLA grads have long forgiven for completing his medical degree at USC.

Let's call Ed Azarian, a private investigator who worked in an Army intelligence unit in Germany, a reliable fact-checker for stories of good times past.

Though there are two of the gang who've died and another who only makes games occasionally due to health limitations, the group's conversation tends to stay on the lighter side.

"We talk medical, political … mostly sex," joked Azarian.

"We call it wishful thinking," added Foder.

Actually, it's mostly just casual conversation that always leads back to shared stories of the past — punctuated by reminders of whose turn it is to bet any small number of chips representing dimes and quarters, said Creps.

"What we laugh at most is each other. The game is getting swishier because guys forget how much the other guy bet, who bet last, what type of game we're playing. We typed up a list [of a more than a dozen poker variations] so we can check and see what the real rules are," said Creps.

"Bill's been reading it for years," added Foder, "and he still doesn't remember."

All kidding aside, enjoying recollections of the past and keeping memories sharp is the true objective of the game.

"What amazes me is my dad's memory is better than mine. He can remember things that he did in high school, people's names. They feed off of each other," Glidewell said her father and his friends.

"We learn a lot by sharing the little things in our lives," said Nickerson.

Aside from the monthly poker game, several of group members and their wives — who are nearly as close and who joined them at the card table in bygone days, the men say — take semi-annual weekend trips to Las Vegas, Solvang and other regional destinations.

The phenomenon is intergenerational, too, with the friends' children also in the mix on shared trips, parties and other events over the years. Stories of the guys' parents also are handed down occasionally.

"Fred knew my dad's parents very well, so he filled me in on his thoughts of them and his recollections when [he and Missakian] were still in high school," Glidewell said.

Though all have worked hard to build comfortable lives, "you can be rich without money, if you have a good wife and your health," said Foder.

"… And kids and grandkids," Missakian said.

And then there are friends who might as well be family.

"Short of an operation, playing the game comes first. That's the No. 1 priority on our schedules — the one on the calendar with a big star on it," Azarian said.

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