The Gang of Four

Kathleen Durham, Nelljean McConeghey (Rice), Cheryl Stiles and Dale Tushman

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Pictured Left to Right: Cheryl, Kathleen, Nelljean and Dale
Photography courtesy of The Gang of Four

This group of fascinating women have been friends for nearly four decades! Calling themselves the Gang of Four (GO4), they have been through it all together. We asked them to describe their friendship and what they are roaring about!

How did the Gang of Four begin?

Cheryl (GO4 unofficial historian): In the fall of 1985, Nelljean taught a creative writing workshop in the evenings at Brunswick Junior College, and Dale and Kathleen were enrolled. I joined the class in winter 1986. We came together as writers, and our love of writing still binds us. After the workshop ended, we continued to meet at least weekly at Birdie’s Restaurant, a few blocks from the pier on St. Simons Island. We would chat endlessly about our lives, our creative projects, our work and our families. As I reflect on our 37-year friendship, I believe it is those delightful and incalculable hours we spent at Birdie’s that helped forge our enduring bond.

How would you describe the GO4?

Dale: People who know and love one another and accept flaws and celebrate wonderfulness. We are cheerleaders when one needs to celebrate, and we call one another on flawed thinking with care. We give one another “booster” shots when needed. We offer shoulders for crying, arms for holding, and we are not judgmental. I dearly love the fact that we can talk plainly to one another; rarely is anything buried in fluff.

Kathleen: We are an unlikely band of companions who have maintained our friendships all these years because of our deep mutual respect for, and loyalty to, one another. What matters to one matters to all. We care for, and about, one another. We laugh a lot, and we grieve with each other too. We come from very different backgrounds, beliefs and life experiences. Sometimes this can be a stumbling block in friendships. For us, though, the differences only make us more interested in each other’s lives and in our conversations. I attribute this to our fundamental curiosity about all aspects of the world.

Nelljean: Serendipity brought us together. We are four completely different people who have formed both an emotional and a physical life as a “gang.”

When did you leave Coastal Georgia? Were you afraid of losing your connections to the Gang?

Cheryl: In August 1989 I moved back to my hometown of Marietta to take a position at the newly built main library there and to be closer to my family. Although I/we certainly missed our regular GO4 gatherings, we planned to have regular—at least annual—reunions. And we have had many of them over the decades. It does not matter how many months or years pass between reunions. When we gather again, it feels to me as though no time has ever passed.

Nelljean: I left St Simons in the late summer of 1987. I was the first to go, but I wasn’t worried that we would lose our connection. We came back that Thanksgiving to see Rebecca, Kathleen’s first born. My children and first husband loved St Simons, and we returned as often as we could. The Gang talked to each other, separately, often. Because, even though we have a big identity as a foursome, we also have individual friendships that are just as important as our gang.

Describe a moment when this group of friends made a real difference in your life.
Kathleen: There are so many individual instances of the group’s impact on my life. Rather than pick one, I will say just the very existence of our abiding friendship reassures and encourages me. I know the other three are always agreeably “hovering” and willing to listen, advise and support me with open minds. They exemplify patience and benevolence.

Dale: After my divorce, I was very unsure about my future here, or anywhere for that matter.  The GO4 spent much time offering me encouragement and support through calls and funny notes and walk time and sit time. I have maintained relationships with the group’s kids:  Kathleen’s daughters still call me their fairy godmother, and Nelljean’s son and daughter continue to include me in their remarkable lives. I am still here; it’s been more than 30 years now.

Nelljean: My first husband, Paul Rice, died unexpectedly on October 17, 2004. During the days after, and, for that matter, years after, the gang has been an emotional support like no other. I could scream, laugh, cry, rant, despair with them. You see, they loved him too.

Cheryl: During a short period of time I lost several people with whom I was very close: my wonderful boss; a beloved coworker; my grandmother; and my father (he passed away on Father’s Day weekend). This series of losses culminated with the death of my younger sister, who spent 25 days in ICU on life support before that support was removed. These losses were devastating and profound and led me into a deep, deep depression. With my GO4 friends’ compassionate and empathetic listening, and through their nonjudgmental support, I was able to reach out for much-needed help to navigate through such a dark and troubled time. I believe that this group of friends—and this group alone—could have helped me in their gentle but persistent way, and for that I am always grateful.

How did it feel to be able to meet in person after COVID put your get-togethers on pause?

Dale: Astounding! Meals were at least five hours long; the talking never stopped. Our last piece of the celebration was at The Jekyll Island Club—a major piece of our history.

Nelljean: We just talked a mile a minute! Time collapsed and it was if we had not had the physical hiatus Covid brought. It felt so good to hug again! We got into our old rhythm instantly.

Kathleen: Getting together again in September after COVID was as though we had not missed a beat. It took just a quick minute to readjust to our four voices going at once, but the conversations flowed as always. It was as though we were back in the cozy ambience of Birdie’s 37 years ago just talking away.

Cheryl: It was wonderful to be together again. The logistics of planning a reunion are a bit more complicated now, but each time I return to the Georgia coast, I am reminded how much I loved living there. And how fortunate I am to have such enduring friendships with Dale, Nelljean, and Kathleen.

What are you roaring about?

Nelljean: In a way, my whole life has been a roar. As a university professor and dean, I have fought for students my whole professional life. I founded a Women’s and Gender Studies program that is expanding and going strong at Coastal Carolina University. In terms of the G04, I will fight for each one of them with all my might.

Kathleen: I am a part-time English instructor at the College of Coastal Georgia. I teach freshmen composition. It is very rewarding at the end of the semester when students realize they can write better than they thought they could. Helping build that confidence motivates me to teach.

Dale: I am focused now on being part of the groups and organizations which will find solutions related to the homeless issues we have locally.  I live downtown (Brunswick), and I want to see it, and the rest of the city and the county, continue to develop and grow in meaningful and exciting ways.  

Cheryl: I like to share my lifelong love of poetry by teaching poetry workshops, and I have led free workshops throughout the Cobb County Public Library since retiring in 2020. I inherited the “gardening gene” and advanced my gardening skills this past year by becoming a Certified Master Gardener. And what really makes me roar...the idea of planning the next reunion of our Gang of Four!

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