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Palmerton Hungarian Club celebrates 100 years

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    Wayne Engle, left, and Mathew Behler pose for a photo in the dining area of the Palmerton Hungarian Club on Lehigh Avenue. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS

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    Photos of past members hang in the upstairs level of the Palmerton Hungarian Club.

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    The Palmerton Hungarian Club is located at 317 Lehigh Ave. in the borough.

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    Rose Nenscel sits in front of the bowling lanes in the Palmerton Hungarian Club.

Published August 09. 2019 01:26PM

Mathew Behler says the further you live on Lehigh Avenue in Palmerton, the tougher you are.

If that is true, then the 88-year-old is among Palmerton’s most resilient. He grew up in the street’s second-to-last house.

But beyond being the site of his childhood home, there is another reason Behler thinks Lehigh is significant. At 14, Behler started as a pin boy at the Palmerton Hungarian Club at 317 Lehigh. He was far below the club’s age requirement, but that did not stop him from finding a way in.

A year after graduating from Palmerton Area High School, Behler enlisted into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The year was 1949. He was stationed at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey before eventually being sent to Europe.

When Behler came home in 1953, one of the first things he did was join the Hungarian Club. He soon became a part of the club’s administration, taking up the role of secretary and later, treasurer. He served in the latter capacity, on and off, for about 60 years.

“It’s like growing up in the place,” Behler said of his longtime membership with the club.

Over its 100-year existence, the Palmerton Hungarian Club has been a home away from home for countless people. Founded in 1919, the club was originally formed to support immigrants in Palmerton.

The building was more than its social hall and bowling alley; it was a place where people could find support, where neighbors became family. And an active membership came with an envied bonus: an induction into “the death society.”

“That was one of the main reasons the club was formed,” Ed Moyer, club secretary, said.

The death society was — and still is — a way for members to ensure that when they passed, their family had access to some sort of monetary assistance for funeral costs. It guaranteed a $500 donation toward the late member’s burial.

It was a small contribution that made a big difference for grieving families, Moyer said.

In the 1940s, the club was flourishing, so the board decided to construct a new building. World War II postponed those efforts until 1950.

Wayne Engle remembers spending his lunch hour watching crews as they erected the soon-to-be new home of the Palmerton Hungarian Club. He was a student at Palmerton Area High School.

Fast forward to 1958, Engle returned to the area after attending trade school for carpentry. He joined the Hungarian club that year, and has been an active member ever since.

Rose Nenscel, 64, started frequenting the Palmerton Hungarian Club after marrying her late husband, Jeffrey Nenscel. Jeffrey’s family had a history with the organization dating back to the construction of the second building.

Nenscel spent about two and a half hours cleaning the club every day alongside her mother-in-law, Catherine. They went section by section, repeating the same cleaning sequence every day for a month before starting the process all over again.

But the family always made sure to set aside time for the lanes.

“Our Friday nights were spent here,” Nenscel said. “Men bowled first, and the women sat here and waited for the men, and then they would sit at the bar while the women bowled. That’s the way it went.”

She may be one of the few family members remaining, but Nenscel still maintains an active role in the Hungarian club; she has been a board member for almost two decades.

“I’ve been representing the Nenscel family for all these years,” she said. “I’m proud of it.”

The Palmerton Hungarian Club, or — as it is called in Hungarian — the Palmerton Magyar Szövetkezet, has a reach that extends far beyond its members, President Mark Kelhart said. The club has donated thousands of dollars to local schools, memorials and families.

“That’s one thing that I’m very proud of,” Kelhart said. “I couldn’t even imagine the type of money this club has donated to the Palmerton area.”

And while it still maintains an active membership roster of more than 300 people, Kelhart wants to grow that figure.

He’s hoping the club’s “good times, cheap drinks and fresh lanes” might help achieve that.

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