Recalling the good times Longtime skiers toast Dante, memories

They said goodbye to the workday in lawn chairs. They went to the beach, attended parties, became friends — some, lovers.

Oh, and they also went snow skiing. In the mid- to late-1960s, that meant joining the Atlanta Ski Club and, preferably, having your own place at that cool Buckhead apartment complex.

Nancy Battaglia remembers.

“Oh, we had such fun back then,” said Battaglia, a California native who found her way to Atlanta in 1968 to help open public libraries in the inner city. “It was wonderful in Atlanta.”

The Atlanta of 50 years ago came alive in the memories of old friends Thursday night. More than 100 people, most retired, most no longer skiers, crowded into a dining room at Dante’s Down the Hatch to recall days when rents were cheap, friendships priceless.

They also packed the landmark restaurant to say farewell to Dante’s, scheduled to close July 30.

MORE: The Last Act: The final chapter of Dante's Down the Hatch

Yes, and to toast the owner, Dante Stephensen, a former president of the ski club. He’s been a restaurateur for more than 40 years, first at Underground Atlanta and at his current location in Buckhead. And so his friends came from around the city and across the state lines to say hello, then goodbye.

Stephensen, ever the host, toasted the visitors right back. “This is overwhelming,” said Stephensen. Then he paused, took in the crowd, smiled.

“I’ve never seen so many old people in my life!” he said.

Yes, the crowd was old, agreed Jim Strong, 72. But that wasn’t always so.

In the mid-1960s, the Alabama native was a member of that rare species, a young Republican in a state where Democrats ruled. He hung out with the young folks at Buckhead’s Colonial Homes, went to their parties.

Strong, a member of the Georgia Republican State Committee, gestured to a knot of men holding drinks and laughing.

“Some of these people were hellions,” he said. “Some were successful young businessmen.”

Strong tightened his grip on the cane at his side. “Some,” he said, “became wizened old married men.”

Guys like Fred Macey, perhaps? In 1965, the Briton left Canada, where he’d lived for a few years, and headed south. He got as far as Atlanta.

Macey soon joined the ski club, not knowing what would happen that autumn day when he and other members hiked Stone Mountain. They huffed to the top, getting in shape for the winter ski season. At its summit, Macey struck up a conversation with a young brunette, she, like him, a transplant.

Something clicked, albeit slowly. The strangers became friends and a year after that conversation atop the big rock, he asked her on a date. She said yes. In time, he asked her to marry. She said yes again.

Margery Macey, remembering that encounter on the mountain, smiled. Saturday is Margery and Fred Macey’s 45th wedding anniversary.

“Those were wonderful times,” she said.

The best of times, agreed Grace Orr Edwards. A native of South Carolina, she came to Atlanta in 1964, taking a secretary’s job with an accounting firm downtown. She and a roommate rented a place near Colonial Homes, running across Peachtree Street to unwind with their neighbors at day’s end. They’d sit in folding chairs as night enfolded them.

“I came here to the big city,” she said. Edwards paused, thinking. “Of course, back then, it was a small city.”

According to the 1960 Census, the city comprised fewer than 500,000 residents; the metro region, 1.5 million. In the 2010 count, the region boasted more than 5.2 million people.

The city was big enough for Edwards, another ski club member who discovered that not all the action takes place on the slopes. On a ski trip to Taos, N.M., she met a pleasant young man, an Atlanta surgeon. Like her, Bruce Edwards was in the club.

In 1975, the two married. They live in Atlanta still.

The food vanished, the crowd thinned. At 7 p.m., two musicians took seats at piano and drums. The pianist ran fingers across the keys, coaxing forth the first notes of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

Lynne Holley lingered near the piano, not quite ready to leave. She’s an Atlanta girl, born here and now living in her mama’s house. She left home long enough to go off to college, then hustled back, living in Colonial Homes twice. That was more than 40 years ago.

“Things then were …” Holley paused, searching for the right word.

“Slower,” she said, nodding to herself. “Better.”

“The friends I made there, I still have.”