They were brought together by tragedy, but 35 years later, the "Incy Boys" are celebrating a unique bond of trust, support and understanding. Eight men, all of whom grew up attending Incarnation Catholic Church in south Minneapolis, remain just as close today as they were then.

"If you have one or two friends like that, you're a very blessed person," said the Rev. Ralph Goman, a retired priest who serves as the group's facilitator but also counts himself a member. "To have nine people with that intimate of a relationship is very unusual."

It started in 1977 with a car accident that killed the younger brother of group member Brian Lamb. After the funeral, Goman arranged for a gathering in which people could "talk out their feelings."

"A lot of people were there," said Pat Kaiser, to which fellow group member Chuck Leeder added, "It was a very close neighborhood."

A year later, Goman was asked if he could arrange another meeting. Eight guys showed up. And the same eight have been showing up once a year every year since.

"It's the highlight of the year for everyone," said Matt Rieger. Mike Stockhaus agreed: "Everybody considers it a priority. It's an unspoken commitment."

They were 21 the first time they met. Now they're 56 (with the exception of Leeder, the kid of the group, who won't turn 56 until the fall). Over the years, they've gotten married, raised children, buried parents, changed jobs and battled health issues. As they've done so, the topics under discussion have changed, but the atmosphere has remained the same.

"It's an opportunity to look at your own life and put it out in front of people you trust and who support and understand you," Goman said.

There's no point in putting up a false front, Gary Walch said. "We know each other too well for that."

Leeder agreed: "If you try to come off as somebody else, you're going to get called on it."

They usually meet in late April or early May (it was the latter this year) at a cabin owned by Stockhaus, who is accused of timing the retreat so the group can help him put in his dock -- a charge he doesn't entirely deny. The annual gatherings have gotten much more elaborate over the years. What started as a Saturday afternoon get-together now starts on Thursday evening and continues until lunch on Sunday.

The planning has become more organized, too. When it came to meals, the earlier retreats were catch-as-catch-can affairs in which somebody would swing past a supermarket and pick up whatever struck their fancy. Now assignments are made as to who will handle which meals, and at the end of the weekend, all the receipts are added up and accounts are settled so that everyone pays the same.

Over the years, the only complaint Goman has gotten about the meetings has come from the spouses. "They're jealous," he said. "They wish they had something like this."

Focus: Work, faith and family

The ground rules are simple: Everyone gets a chance to talk as long as he wants about whatever issue is on his mind. And Lamb goes last.

"It depends on what's going on" in the speaker's life, Walch said. "Some things we spend more time on than others."

"We take things to a very serious level," Goman said. "I like to think that at least part of their sense of values has come from these retreats."

Rieger is certain that's the case. "We're all trying to balance work, faith and family," he said. "Those are the three topics we always discuss. I have no doubt that this [group] has had a huge impact on our lives. We have eight guys here still happily married to their first wives. That, in itself, is unique from a statistical standpoint."

If you're thinking that the group has lasted so long because the members are all cut from the same cloth, think again. Maybe that was true at first, but Goman said he's amazed by how widespread the range of opinions has become.

"There's a lot of diversity, both politically and spiritually," he said. "We have some heavy discussions about things like abusive priests and the increasing strictness of the archdiocese. I hear some very interesting debates that are based on mindsets that are different from what I might expect. But it's always a debate. We never argue."

Goman is the instigator of those debates. He's even gone so far as to assign homework in the form of research on controversial topics he'd like to open for discussion. "I don't think I'd call it homework," he protested, although he was drowned out by unanimous disagreement from the other men.

Only Rieger still lives in their boyhood neighborhood and still attends Incarnation Church, but everyone has stayed in the Twin Cities area. Several of them get together outside the retreat group. Lamb is married to Stockhaus' sister.

"We often get together in twos and threes to go golfing and camping and that sort of thing," Rieger said. When Leeder protested that he's never been invited to go camping with the group, his complaint was met with howls of playful derision. "Chuck's idea of roughing it is Holiday Inn," Rieger explained.

Once the teasing had stopped, Leeder insisted that despite the relationships that exist outside the group, the retreats never break into factions or cliques.

"It's not a threat," he said. "What we do [at the retreat], we do as a whole. What guys do together outside, that doesn't affect us."

Goman said that he looks forward to the retreats as much as the other men do.

"Each one in the group depends on the rest of the group, and I do, too," he said. "I get as much out of the weekend as they do."

He's 74 and, other than needing the help of a cane to get around, is healthy. But one of the debate topics he has introduced is what will happen to the retreats when he no longer can attend. He wants them to keep going, and the men insist that they will. In fact, Rieger said, they intend to keep going until there's only one left standing. "We've got a very unique longevity," he said. "It's a family affair."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392