The world has changed a lot in the last 100 years. Lions have roared loudly in making it a better place. At Your Service When Lions Clubs began in 1917, service clubs were all the rage. But few actually were about service. They were businessmen’s groups where the unofficial motto was “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine.” Service was an afterthought or it was window dressing. The self-serving motives of these groups made them an easy target for Sinclair Lewis in his wildly successful novel Babbitt in 1922. Lewis penned his satire before Lions Clubs became a game-changer. Lions’ founder, Chicago insurance agent Melvin Jones, established a service club organization truly dedicated to service, an organization that prohibited financial self-interest. Jones and other early Lions put the “service” in service clubs and forever altered the role of community-based civic groups. Cane Mutiny Blind people used canes for centuries. But it took a Lion to make the canes safer and recognizable as a symbol of the blind. George Bonham was president of the Peoria Lions Club in Illinois in 1930 when he noticed a blind man with a black cane trying to cross a busy street. The man tapped his cane over and over, but the drivers, oblivious to his disability, continued to speed past him. Bonham decided what was needed was a white cane with a wide band of red. His club painted canes and distributed them to the blind, and the Peoria City Council swiftly approved a law giving the blind using a white cane the right of- way. By 1956 every state had passed White Cane safety laws. Reading With the Ears “The faces of the sightless people of Milwaukee are shining with pleasure these days,” the Milwaukee Journal reported on Feb. 7, 1935. The reason for their happiness? They could “read” books–Talking Books provided by the Library of Congress. Milwaukee Lions had donated to the Milwaukee Public Library a Talking Book machine produced by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Within a couple of years the Milwaukee Library had more than 100 Talking Books including parts of the Bible, Greek plays and works by contemporary writers such as Edna Ferber, P.G. Wodehouse and even Walt Disney. The Library of Congress first produced Talking Books in 1934, and Lions clubs quickly worked with both the AFB and the American Printing House for the Blind to get the books and machines to the blind. The technology was cumbersome: a new needle was required each time a record was played. But the sound quality was good, and the blind couldn’t get enough of the newfangled device. The Milwaukee Library reported a Talking Book circulation of 28,526 in 11 months in the late 1930s. E.E. Seebach, the head of the Talking Book department at the library, was oddly prescient: “The talking book is of greatest importance to those with defective vision as well as to the blind. Eventually, I think most of us will do our ‘reading’ in this manner.” Eye Bank Era By the 1940s surgeons knew how to successfully transplant the cornea of the eye, but transplants were rare. The problem lay in securing donor’s eyes. People either weren’t aware of the possibility or were reluctant to approve using a deceased relative’s eyes. Clergymen’s views then didn’t help either: they considered using eyes for transplant a desecration of the dead. A Lions club in New York, headed by a determined, savvy lawyer, helped change attitudes. Born in Italy in 1886, Ralph Cerreta came to the United States when he was 10 and worked as a reporter in New York before becoming a prominent, wealthy lawyer. While yet in his 20s Cerreta displayed a fierce concern for the disadvantaged and the ability to muster resources: he established the Italian Welfare League and the Young Men’s Italian Educational League. During World War II he learned of the difficulty in completing corneal transplants. A chemist who had served in World War I was scheduled for a corneal transplant at a Manhattan hospital, but the death sentence of the would-be donor, a convict at Sing-Sing prison, was unexpectedly commuted. Donor tissue was luckily obtained from a deceased infant, but Cerreta had found a new cause for Lions. His Central Staten Island Lions Club established the Sight Restoration Society in December 1944 for Lions to promote corneal transplants. The world’s first eye bank, the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration, was founded nearby on Dec. 15, 1944, at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, by young ophthalmologist Dr. R. Townley Paton and others. It’s unclear whether the Lions’ Restoration Society preceded the Eye-Bank and also uncertain is the exact initial relationship between the two (Lions have supported the Eye-Bank for many years). But Lions were henceforth instrumental in launching the eye bank movement. In 1945, the Buffalo Lions Club in New York founded the world’s second eye bank, the Buffalo Eye Bank, and today Lions sponsor 55 of the world’s eye banks, restoring sight to thousands of people and furthering research on cures for eye disease. Service in a Place of Exile Kalaupapa in Hawaii is famous as the home of those with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. For decades those with the illness were banished to the village. Despite its isolation, Kalaupapa was a thriving community with churches, musical groups, a historical society, a theater–and a Lions club. The Kalaupapa Lions Club chartered on April 28, 1948, with 31 members. Kalaupapa Lions were leaders of the settlement: the administrator, medical director, sheriff and business manager. The club kept the community vibrant and active. It paid for the travel of entertainers (who donated their time) such as Red Skelton, Shirley Temple and Art Linkletter to perform at the community hall. Lions held hobby and craft shows, bingo nights, fishing tournaments and picnics. They built picnic benches and rain shelters at Judd Park. Using large rocks and coral, they constructed a seaside pavilion. No job was too big for the club. Lions put up street signs and directional markers with the Lions logo in their 12-square-mile area, created an orchard by planting trees with commemorative plaques after visits by Lions and prominent people, and recycled the wire from unused overhead electric power lines by “bushwacking” their way through thick undergrowth up a treacherous 2,000- foot-high mountainside. The outside world might have pitied them, but Lions were too busy to notice. They used Kukui nuts and shells to craft leis, jewelry and novelties, and they generously supported the Hawaii Lions Eye Foundation, the Salvation Army and the programs of Lions Clubs International. Hawaii abolished its isolation laws in 1969, many years after medicine was developed to control and cure Hansen’s disease. Seventeen people remain in Kalaupapa; eight are Lions. Ann Landers, Dear Indeed At the height of her popularity columnist Ann Landers reached 90 million readers of more than 1,200 newspapers. She was the national water cooler: her advice rippled out across the nation. Lions shrewdly capitalized on her renown in 1987. International President Sten A. Akestam of Sweden wrote to her: “Dear Ann Landers: I know that you are very much interested in educating your readers on matters concerning health. In fact, the medical community considers you its No. 1 (and most effective advocate). Please print this letter.” Akestam then went on to describe the warning signs of diabetes, a disease still in the shadows. He also provided the phone number for Lions’ headquarters. Landers replied in her column: “I am delighted to print it. It will save lives.” Ever practical, Landers closed, “I hope you have a good number of trunks on that phone and many volunteers who are willing to man it. And please keep in mind that my West Coast readers are two hours behind you. Don’t close up at 5 o’clock.” She was right: the phones rang for weeks. But Lions Clubs was ready, quickly mailing out thousands of preprinted diabetes brochures. Seeds of Democracy The Guangdong and Shenzhen Lions Clubs chartered in May 2002–the first voluntary membership groups in China since the 1950s. Making inroads in the world’s most populous nation is good for Lions Clubs International (LCI). Today there are 489 clubs with nearly 13,000 Lions in China. But Lions are also good for China besides the obvious service reasons. LCI is non-political, but political commentators have argued that NGOs such as Lions contribute to the democratization of China. Political scientist Chen Jie wrote, “Lions have helped transform official and popular attitudes toward NGO activity by operating in China. There is the Lions own democratic structure, with the members from the Shenzhen and Guangzhou branches reportedly inspired by its annual presidential elections, participatory mechanism, equality among leaders and members, dedication and transparency.” Leading the Way In 1938 three members of the Uptown Lions Club in Detroit were crestfallen after their club’s failed attempt to enroll a fellow member, Dr. Glenn Wheeler, in the only U.S. school for guide dogs. The Seeing Eye in New Jersey accepted contributions but not sponsorships of individual students. So Charles Nutting, Don Schuur and S.A. Dodge, destined to become international president in 15 years, founded the Lions Leader Dog Foundation. Their quest included one memorable misstep. As they assessed a farmhouse as a possible headquarters, the rotting kitchen floor collapsed and two of them plunged into the basement. Undaunted, the trio founded their school in another farmhouse and housed the first four dogs in a dilapidated barn. Today, Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester is one of the most prominent guide dog schools. One of the very first of its kind, it helped popularize guide dogs worldwide. World Body Roars From The Get-Go As World War II raged, leaders of the Allied nations looked beyond the end of the conflict and held talks on a world body for preserving peace– an entity that would be stronger than the toothless League of Nations. Lions rallied behind the idea. In 1943 in Cleveland at their international convention Lions endorsed a House resolution calling for an international peace-keeping mechanism once the fighting ended. In February 1945 Lions’ founder Melvin Jones and another Lion gathered with leaders of other national groups to meet with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. and Assistant Secretary of State Archibald McLeish to discuss a United Nations. In April Lions headquarters asked clubs to hold a United Nations week to show support for the initiative. The U.N. charter was signed in June. Jones, International President D.A. Skeen of Salt Lake, Utah, and future international president Fred Smith of Ventura, California, helped to formulate the non-governmental section of the U.N. charter. Two years later in 1947, in recognition of the importance of Lions Clubs to its mission, the United Nations gave Lions consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council, committed to the welfare of people worldwide. For 68 years Lions and the United Nations have shared many common goals and worked together to further peace and prosperity. Vision Quest Papyrus texts from ancient Egypt describe the bitter toll of trachoma: blindness brought on by eyelashes that turn inward, not only excruciatingly painful but also permanently scarring the cornea. What the Egyptians did not know was that the underlying culprit was a bacteria, spread by flies, and that the disease was prevalent in overcrowded conditions marred by poor hygiene. Modern researchers sought antibiotics to thwart the age-old disease, and in the 1950s Melbourne Lions in Australia made possible the Lions Research Unit of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and underwrote the salary of gifted pathologist Dr. H. Courtney Greer. Building on the research of Professor Ira Mann, Greer perfected an antibiotic in the early 1960s that saved countless Aboriginals from blindness.
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