Eric Goldscheider 2014-08-12 12:15:12
It’s cool to be a Leo at King Philip Regional High School. But the Leos know how to make senior citizens feel like royalty. Silky-smooth Glen Miller tunes wafted through the cafeteria and high school senior John Martorano mingled and danced with seniors of another sort. The hair on the heads of his dance partners was gray and their knees were arthritic, yet their smiles were wide. The Senior Senior Prom brought together residents of area nursing homes and members of the King Philip Leo Club for an afternoon of carefree fun. The spring prom is one of many events that crowd the calendar of the King Philip Club, probably one of the most active in the world. The club is without a doubt one of the largest in the United States year after year. Chartered in 1998, it’s had as many as 265 members. Most years it straddles the 200 mark. The King Philip Leo Club is based at the regional high school from which it takes its name in Wrentham, Massachusetts. The Great Gatsby-themed prom was held at the high school. The club’s adviser, Lion Jeff Hall, whose jutting jaw line gives him an uncanny resemblance to Jay Leno, set up the sound system and served as DJ. Don Hanssen, another adviser, hustled over to a party supply store to get headgear for what would be, well, the crowning event of the afternoon. Martorano organized volunteers for kitchen duty, spread gold plastic tablecloths on the round tables and generally helped make things festive. This year he’ll be at the University of Alaska studying aviation on his way to his dream of becoming an airline pilot. But on this day his chores were more mundane, quite earthbound, so to speak. “Today, I’m folding paper flowers,” he says. Martorano just finished a stint as president. If you didn’t know better you might mistake him for a shy kid. He’s tall and lanky, and when he surveys the room you can tell the wheels in his head are taking in details others miss. The new vice president, Cathy Namuli, on the other hand, is nothing if not bubbly. She’ll crack a joke, break out some dance moves (where appropriate) and instinctively invite you to join her in smiling at life. Namuli, whose goal is to be a pediatric neurosurgeon, was decked out in flapper gear with a black feather strapped to her head. She and Trusha Patel, her co-chair for the prom, played the part of the perfect hostesses, inviting levity while making sure all the props and amenities were in place. The Leos served a lobster bisque soup appetizer. The party picked up when Hall started spinning Miller’s buoyant “A String of Pearls.” The ease, grace and just plain fun with which the almost three-hour party unfolded was a testament to the Leo’s leadership skills as well as their easy camaraderie and earnest devotion to making somebody’s day just a little bit better. To get a sense of the spirit that goes into pulling off events like these, consider that it is not unusual for 130 Leos to turn up at a 7 a.m. meeting, before the start of the school day, to lend ideas for an activity or to find out how they can plug in. Mr. Hall, as Leos address him, has a reputation for a hands-off style, letting the flow of ideas and the decision-making come from the group itself. The Leos do much more than sponsor their own events. They are a pool of energy for the Lions clubs in the three towns, which also include Norfolk and Plainville, that make up the regional school district. Greg Stahl, another co-adviser, has organized parking for large events for 13 years, including several dog shows, to raise money for charity. He makes it his business to get to know the Leos so he can enlist their help. “What happens is you get a couple of kids interested and they bring all their friends along,” he says. Leos will also take charge of a booth at a fair, organize water stops for road races and help out at any number of other Lion activities like Christmas tree sales, Halloween haunted houses, cleaning up a nature preserve, or working on the eyemobile to do blood pressure, hearing and vision screenings. Stahl gets to see them grow as human beings while giving them opportunities to have fun while working for a cause. Dog shows are a special kind of spectacle, and parking cars gets you close to the action. “One girl told me, ‘When I get to college I’m going to write my sociology thesis on these people,’” Stahl recalls. “I don’t know if she ever did or not, but that whole thought just made me laugh.” Describing his role as co-adviser, Stahl says, “you extend yourself to work with youth and then the youth work for you. They grow up more mature and ready to give what the society, or the country or the planet needs to advance.” The King Philip Leos come from a cross section of the school. “You have athletes and honors society members and just regular kids who haven’t found their direction yet,” says Stahl. The nice thing is that it is a very inclusive and welcoming club. “We make it easy to join,” he says. True, being a Leo carries social status and looks good on a college application. But it’s hard to pinpoint why this club is as popular as it is. “Somehow, about 12 years ago, it suddenly became cool to be in the Leo club,” says Stahl. “That’s nothing us boring old adults could manufacture even if we tried.” Stahl has watched Martorano since he joined the Leos as a freshman to when he was elected president. “He started out very shy and unsure of himself. He had a problem standing up and speaking to people,” says Stahl. “Seeing him grow was amazing. He stands up now and takes control of a meeting in a way you’d never think he could.” At the prom Martorano wore skinny jeans, red sneakers and a bright shirt the color of which he described as “green screen green” because when he wears it while shooting videos he can use special effects to make his torso disappear and look like his head is floating above the scene. He wants to see the world and plans to apply for a Lions sponsored trip to either China or Australia. Becoming a pilot for him comes in equal parts from his love of flying and his desire to go everywhere he can. The Leo club is the only club he belongs to at school. He set his sights on becoming president from his freshman year when he was voted most active general member. What draws him in? “I really enjoy making peoples’ days. Just the simple things in life that can make people happy,” he says. He especially likes the intergenerational events. On visits to nursing homes Martorano finds that older people “are really interested in the modern trends of what kids say now.” The texting term YOLO is a case in point. It makes sense that “You Only Live Once” has a far different meaning for a 70- year-old than it has for 17-year-old. “It turned into a really funny ongoing joke that we had,” he says. The club also holds a holiday party for seniors, and in March they decided to put on a Bingo game because the month seemed to be dragging. “We never have an issue getting coverage for an event because we have such large numbers and everything runs smoothly,” he says. Martorano was co-chair of last year’s Senior Senior Prom, which had a Wizard of Oz theme. Some of the cast from the middle school production came and sang to augment Hall’s disk jockeying. Hall is constantly amazed and gratified by how “contagious” the enthusiasm for the Leos is at the King Philip High School. “They work harder than any sports team, I swear,” he says. At one time it was mostly girls but now the membership is evenly divided between males and females. As adviser, Hall’s main priority is to “remind them that the key is always communication. ... It’s something we wrestle with year after year.” The annual calendar of events, which is posted online “really becomes our Bible,” he says. The Leos look up to Hall and the other advisers. “He [Hall] always tells us how important every event is, and we always have so much fun with him,” says Namuli. “We call the shots, and he usually just advises us on whether or not something would work. He is more about guiding us on our ideas and on what paths we should be taking for the club.” It fell to Namuli and Patel, as co-chairs, to select the prom royalty. Namuli said the whole group of Leos huddled and decided unanimously to make Hall’s mother, Barbara, 100, the queen (cover photo). Crowning her queen of the prom “was a two for one,” says Namuli. “We got to make her happy and make our adviser happy, and the whole club was happy too.” Hall was visibly delighted at her coronation. “I’ve been blessed,” she says. She took a twirl around the dance floor with Martorano and then with a grinning Al Horsman, the Senior Senior Prom king. Her son was amused. “I might have found a new stepfather,” he chortles.
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