JAY COPP 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Two dozen miles outside Cedar Rapids, in the heartland of America, Route 150 veers sharply away from the interstate and plunges into the countryside of eastern Iowa. Barns and farmhouses dot the sweeping landscape. "We have a diversified economy," jokes Lion Frank Van Steenhuyse of Vinton. "On one side of the road it's corn and soybeans. On the other side it's soybeans and corn." Vinton announces itself before Vinton actually can be seen. On the side of the road, rising from the tall grass, is a large sign with a hodgepodge of emblems. The town of 5,000 contains a Catholic, a Baptist and a Lutheran church, an American Legion, a Kiwanis club and a Lions club. In town, landmarks familiar to county residents (Vinton is the county seat) jump into view: the imposing county courthouse, the refurbished main street with the only movie theater within 30 miles and the majestic school for the blind that for nearly 160 years has educated children statewide. In the last election year, being that Iowa plays a key role in the presidential race, Obama, Clinton, Edwards and other candidates came to Vinton, some more than once. Well over a century ago, the town hosted another celebrity of sorts: the sister of the author Laura Ingalls Wilder lived at the school for the blind. But Vinton is in many ways a typical Midwestern town. In the fall on homecoming weekend fire trucks carry the high school athletes down main street, tractors pull the class floats and convertibles escort the king and queen and their court. In summer the county fair swarms with farmers and 4-H kids. Day after day, farmers sip their morning coffee at the Hitchin Post, teenagers congregate at Leon's malt shop and after church on Sunday the Peony restaurant, the nicest one in town, fills up. The sense of community is palpable. Residents still proudly recall when the girl's basketball team won state and obituaries in the newspaper are old news. If pressed, residents say nothing much ever really happens in Vinton. They invariably describe their town simply as "a good place to raise a family." Yet the routine and normal in Vinton are still revealing. There are 80 Lions in Vinton, a high number for such a small town, and their role in town speaks volumes about who Lions are and what we do. A Town Tour Frank Van Steenhuyse grew up in Vinton, moved away and came back to raise his family, a common scenario for residents. A compact, gregarious man quick to smile or quip, he has offered a guided tour around town in his car. In the back seat is Julie Zimmer, also a Lion. She once worked at the school for the blind as a job counselor; her husband is a retired judge. The two know nearly every inch of their town. "Three stoplights" is a way the soft-spoken Zimmer describes the size of Vinton. Situated on a hill, the Iowa Braille School looms large. That's true figuratively, too. Anyone who grew up in Vinton was shaped in one degree or another by school. Until federal law in the 1970s decreed that children with disabilities be mainstreamed, the sprawling 55-acre campus held as many as 150 students. They lived at the school Monday through Friday but they weren't confined to the campus. Staff encouraged students to learn mobility skills by making their way around town and to learn to be part of society by mixing with residents. Van Steenhuyse remembers that his family took students to church on Sundays. "You'd see the Braille kids downtown. You grew up really alert to the red cane. There was even a tunnel under one of the main roads," he says. "You'd see them at church, around town, at sporting events. They were intelligent, mobile kids." Van Steenhuyse shakes his head. "This gives me goose bumps to think about. One of the kids I used to wrestle with-he could see as good as I could. 'Why are you in the Braille school?' He had a degenerative eye disease and he'd be blind by his mid-20s." The Vinton Lions Club was chartered in 1921, four years before Helen Keller gave Lions their primary mission by urging them to be "Knights of the Blind." But in Vinton the Lions got a head start. The club's first project was to present Braille typewriters to graduates of the blind school. From then on every administrator at the school has been a Lion, and often several staff are members. In the mid-1980s government officials, realizing that the school's large campus now served only a handful of residential students, proposed merging the school with a school for the deaf in Council Bluffs. Vinton Lions rallied other clubs in the state against the idea, and the officials backed down. A few years ago Lions again successfully helped counter a push to close or move the school. The school has helped given the club a purpose and identity. "With Lions you always have to circle back to the connection with the Braille School," says Zimmer. "The founding of the club gave the town and school a head start. They all echo off each other." The school still has a commanding presence. But since it lost its residential character it doesn't loom quite as large in the community. "The Braille school was part of the community when I was growing up," says Van Steenhuyse. "When I was a youth there was a lot more interaction. Without even thinking about it there was a sense of ownership. It wasn't the school 'over there.' " Slowing for a stop sign, Van Steenhuyse waves to a woman in a red van. Growing up here gives him a strong connection to Vinton. But, so, too, does his career path. He left town to join the Army, worked elsewhere (in Washington, D. C.) and then moved back after he was married and had young kids. He ticks off a list of names of peers who followed a similar path. "Number 1, we wanted to raise our families here. Number 2, there were better business opportunities here," he says. When he was younger, Van Steenhuyse sold farm machinery with his dad. He later owned an auto parts store and now runs a funeral home in town. Nearing the outskirts of town, Van Steenhuyse drives by the sparkling new high school, opened two years ago. Schools represent a community's commitment to its future, of course, and several bond issues for a new school had failed, an ominous sign. Then the community was asked to approve an even larger expenditure, a $15 million bond to reconfigure the school system. The old high school would become the new middle school. The middle school would become the elementary school. The bond passed. A Lion donated the extensive tract of land needed for the new high school. Lions helped build support for the bond. "The first thing you do when you want to raise money for a project is to lay out the project before both the Lions and Kiwanis," says Van Steenhuyse, the former head of the town's economic development group. The Lion are a fixture at the high school football games, an event that pulls the community together. Lions direct traffic and the Lions trailer sells tenderloin, hot dogs, popcorn and, most famously, delicious funnel cakes. Profits go back to the school. The club also funds scholarships, provides backpacks, supports the post-prom party and pitches in when a random need arises such as when a new wrestling mat is required. Two new school administrators, both on the young side, recently joined the club. That's how things tend to go in Vinton. "It's just a smart thing for them to do. If they need money for wrestling or whatever, they can get it," says Zimmer. Driving through town, seeing kids on bikes, Van Steenhuyse and Zimmer can't help recall two or three decades ago when their own children were gallivanting around town. "My big job every spring was to make sure the bikes were functional, so they [the kids] were mobile," says VanSteenhuyse. "No kid could to starve to death in our community" reflects Zimmer. "You don't know whose kitchen they'd end up in. It's a real small town-a great sense of community." Van Steenhuyse motors by a small cluster of relatively new homes on the edge of town. He names the families that live in each. "It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody," he explains. But he can't resist a little self-mockery. "I'm old. There's lots of people I don't know." The afternoon wears on and clouds roll in, spoiling a sunny sky. "Typically it's sunny here. It gets cloudy only at night. I'm joking," says Van Steenhuyse. He pauses. "It's Camelot here." The 'List' A few blocks from downtown is Virginia Gay Hospital, one of Vinton's primary assets. The Vinton Country Club is just a chip shot from the hospital. The fairways are lush and green; the clubhouse is comfortable, not tony or plush. The dining room is completely empty this Monday night except for a few Lions. Don Eells, the club president, and Marty Blind, the club's publicity chairperson, chat freely about their lives, their town and the influence of Lions on both. Trim with an erect posture, Eells has the look of a leader-and the background. He taught in high school and served as a basketball coach in Vinton before moving to California to work in corporate training and development. Then he returned to town. He grew up reading the Vinton newspaper. "There was always a lot of stuff about Lions and Kiwanis. I could see even as a 12- or 13-year-old it was a neat thing to be in a club. It's not like I said to myself that my goal is to be a Lion. But that's the way it worked out," he says. The newspaper remains important. "The thing that really helps is to have a newspaper in town. We get a lot of publicity. That perpetuates interest in the club. People want to be involved and do good things." Decades ago Eells learned the hard way that Lions did more in town than he even imagined. One of his duties as a coach was to start a slow-pitch softball league. He needed a field, so he did the arduous labor himself, carving out a crude but usable field. Then a friend tapped him on the shoulder. "He said, 'Don, did you know that within two weeks you can use the softball field?' I didn't know that the Lions had built a slo-pitch softball complex." Not deterred by his name and being an easy target for kidding, Marty Blind worked as the director of technology for Iowa School for the Blind before heading up the IT department at the hospital. He taught school and lived elsewhere, including Amana, before settling his family in Vinton. He's glad they moved. "It's [Amana] good for tourism. They don't even have a playground. Here the parks and recreation is fantastic," he says. "The idea that I can drop off my kids at the movies and know they'll be safe is mind-boggling." Blind first became interested in joining the Lions when he saw them having a good time while doing good. Lions were conducting a "roundup" at the local store: shoppers who paid $19.18 for their groceries, for instance, were encouraged to drop 82 cents into the bucket. He soon was working the Lions concession trailer. "That made the biggest impact on me. I had not seen the 'list.' It was a sign taped to the trailer about all the things the Vinton Lions had donated to or helped. It was a big, long list. My gosh, we do a lot," he says. Vinton and Lions are a good fit. "As an outsider I always felt that people in Vinton want Vinton to succeed," says Blind. "The only way you can make that happen is to just get your hands dirty and do it." Main Street Vinton's main street is Fourth Street. The business district runs for about four blocks down Fourth with dozens of other small businesses scattered a block or two away. The Benton County courthouse, stolid and solemn, dominates the intersection of Fourth and First Avenue. The storefronts include a pharmacy, a TV and appliance store, a furniture store, a spa, a cleaners, a florist, several restaurants and more. The downtown, in terms of foot and car traffic, cleanliness and overall vitality, seems to be holding its own. Not surprisingly, Lions are well-represented in the business community. Many have deep roots in Lions and in Vinton. Mike La Grange, whose grandfather began his family’s pharmacy in 1922, joined the Lions 15 years ago. (“Dad was a Kiwanian,” he says. “I could go to Kiwanis in the morning and Lions at lunch. I picked the Lions. I didn’t like getting up early.”) Lion Dean Luze, whose dad started his business in 1959, runs a sewing and vacuum cleaner shop. Lion Alan Woodhouse has a lineage that goes back ever further. His grandfather was a doctor in town as far back as 1910; his father was a dentist beginning in the 1940s. Woodhouse himself has told Vintonites to open wide since 1969. The downtown reveals Lions not only embedded in the community as businessmen and service club members but also as community leaders, both paid and volunteer. Lion Andy Lent is the city coordinator. Police chief Jeff Tilson is a Lion. Lions populate the utility board, hospital foundation board and leadership positions at churches. Dawn Pettengill, the state legislator representing Vinton, also is a Lion. Interlocking leadership roles are common. “Lots of Lions are double and tripling up,” notes Dick Kerdus, a Lion who has been a CPA in town since 1976. Perhaps the most remarkable Lion/community leader works directly across the street from the courthouse, an ideal location for a man of his profession. Attorney Keith Mossman, 89, still practices law. His son and grandson, both Lions, practice with him. That’s four generation that span the history of the club: Mossman’s father took the oath in 1922, just a year after the club was founded. Courtly and courteous, Mossman can spin yarns and recount the old days unlike any other Vinton Lion. “In the 30s the Lions had a big holiday dinner before Christmas. This was the Depression, not like the recession we have now. This was before welfare and ADC. The kids were really hungry and no one was coming just to have a good time,” he recalls. Back in the day the Lions (remember many were rough-hewn farmers) gathered for coon hunts. The barking dogs set loose in the woods treed the coons and, pistols drawn, the Lions finished the business. Afterward they lit a bonfire and swapped stories. From his desk Mossman pulls out a Lions newsletter from 1961. The club was large even back then with 52 members. Lunch was a whopping 35 cents. The humor was still corny–and from a male perspective. Ed: What makes you think your wife is getting tired of you? John: Every day this week she wrapped my lunch in a road map. "I've been able to associate with people I ordinarily wouldn't have gotten to know. There is the satisfaction of participating in a lot of community activities and contributing to the community. When I was younger I could contribute physical labor-painted the shelter house at the park." Mossman won't bring it up; you have to ask him about this. He's been instrumental in the founding and expansion of the hospital, a prize for any small community and at one time an institution in perilous straits. "In 1951, I co-chaired the campaign to build the hospital. I co-chaired the expansion 15 years ago. I cochaired with [Lion] John Anderson the latest expansion," he relates matter-of-factly. Then, to downplay his own importance, he adds, "I got stuck three times." Mossman is entrusted with civic responsibility. One of his duties is to oversee private charitable trusts that benefit low-income children and others in need. He prides himself on being reliable, a straight shooter who doesn't romanticize the things he cherishes. "I'm sure some people join [Lions] because it's good for business. It's a great way to meet people, anyway. It's a great place for newcomers to get acquainted with people in town. The primary motivation is that people realize it's a good organization that's beneficial to the community.' A couple blocks away from Mossman's office is the main attraction of the downtown: the gleaming Palace Theatre. For $2, patrons can watch a firstrun movie. The theatre seats 196 and on a Friday or Saturday a popular movie will sell out well before show time. The theatre building was empty for 30 years, a glaring symbol of the general decline of the Vinton downtown. Then a decade ago residents including Lions launched a $300,000 restoration campaign for the theater. On the wall opposite the concession stand are dozens of plaques of contributors including one for the Vinton Lions. Bright and clean but not antiseptic like some multiplexes, the theater relies on volunteers to keep prices low. Residents take tickets, serve at the concession stand and run the projector. Volunteers also oversee the clever seat-saving ploy. For 50 cents, a moviegoer can drape a "seat saver" banner over his chosen seat well before show time, leave for dinner and come back to enjoy the show. Woodhouse, the dentist, conceived the idea. "I thought we'd need money to keep the theater going, to paint and refurbish it," says Woodhouse, who also is a projectionist. But the theater did fine on its own. Instead, the reservation revenue has been used for $500 scholarships for graduating high school seniors. In 2003 alone (obviously a banner year for movies), nine scholarships were awarded. So in Vinton you can watch a movie and help pay for someone's college education at the same time. The theater boosted the fortunes of the downtown, which needed a lift. In the 1940s and 50s the downtown bustled with people and prosperity. The Iowa Canning Company and other factories, now all long gone, thrived. Vinton boasted five farm implement dealerships, several grocery stores, both a Sears and a J. C. Penny's. The economic downturn in the 1970s saw the final days of major employers such as Iowa Ham, Hawk Bilt and Prefex. In the 1980s the local economy worsened with the collapse of the farm economy. Stores and restaurants shut their doors. More Vinton residents were forced to find work in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. Besides the theater, town leaders found other ways to strengthen its commercial sector. Vinton received Main Street funds to beautify its downtown. Fancy street lights and colorful murals were put in place. Vinton Unlimited, which combines the functions of a chamber of commerce and an economic development agency, worked to improve the town to make it more attractive to residents and business owners. Today downtown Vinton has made a comeback. It's not what it was in the 1940s but neither has it become neglected and rundown. There are only a handful of empty storefronts. "Our downtown does better that some other communities in the state," said Dean Close, news editor at the Vinton Eagle. "We spent a lot of effort revitalizing it. We made it a priority." A calamity that set back downtown and other parts of Vinton was the flooding in 2008. In June the Cedar River crested at 24 feet, nine feet over the flood stage and five feet higher than the town's all-time record. One hundred buildings were damaged. Twenty eight homes were soiled beyond repair. The courthouse, power plant and jail were flooded. (Cedar Rapids was devastated by flooding.) Lions were among many residents who filled sandbags. LaGrange, the pharmacist, relocated supplies to the hospital; as members of the utility board, Lions secured generators from Minnesota to turn the lights back on. Vinton recovered from the flood. Weeks after the disaster, FEMA officials arrived at a pivotal meeting for residents at the theater. The officials' memories were still fresh with the social disorder after Katrina. "They said, 'Hey, you've got a theater full of flood victims. Where is all the security?'" recalls Eells with a chuckle. Play On Close to the river is the municipal swimming pool and recreation center. The pool features a long, twisting slide worthy of a costly water park. Indeed, the slide, valued at a quarter of a million dollars, was purchased for $1 from an amusement center elsewhere that closed. Making the slide fit the dimensions of the Vinton pool was another story. But more on that later. The recreation center features a basketball court, a racquetball court and an exercise room. Vintonites use the center for free. So does anyone else. "We don't check Ids or anything," says Duane Randall, director of parks and recreation. His department offers an array of leagues, camps and activities that a big-city YMCA would be proud to claim. There's volleyball, tennis, wrestling, softball, flag football, pom pom and more. Randall has the solid build of an athlete and he wears the black and gold of the University of Iowa (the high school actually has the same colors as the Hawkeyes; the colors represent the corn fields). Randall arrived in town in 1986 from Clinton. "I thought it would be a four- or five-year stint and move on," says Randall, whose three children are now in college or graduate school. Cue the standard line. "It's a great place to raise kids. Everything we need is here in town," he adds. Lions, of course, are strong supporters of sports and recreation. The club sponsors the wildly popular Little Vikings wresting meet, which draws young wrestlers from a 50-mile radius and features five divisions and 50 classes. The pool deck had to be redone to fit the slide and Lions pitched in. Finally, a Lion saved the skating rink from oblivion not long ago. The owner was prepared to close it and sell the property for other uses, a situation that alarmed John and Beverly Anderson. "She said, "What do you think we should do?' Recounts Randall. "He said, 'You know what I want to do.' He purchased it for us-$300,000." The Miracles The screen door is open at the tidy frame home on a quiet tree-lined street in Vinton. "Come on in," says Linda Miracle, who steps toward her living room and then settles into an easy chair. In another chair is her husband, Woody. He taught at the Braille School for 30 years, retiring in 1995. It was a case of the blind teaching the blind: glaucoma at birth stole his sight. Linda had very limited vision in one eye until she was 22. Then a second detached retina left her without any sight. The couple met in Louisville at the Kentucky School for the Blind and married in 1962. The Miracles respect the Lions. "They support the Leader Dog School. That's important to me for obvious reasons," says Woody. "Anything they do, we always support," Linda chimes in. Woody received his first Leader Dog in 2000. He didn't want one before that. "He was a cane traveler. He was always a good traveler. He didn't want the dog at the school [where we worked] just left under his desk," explains Linda. His first dog was, er, off the books. "A lady who wanted to retire her dog gave it to me. The standard joke is that I used an illegal dog for three years," Woody says. Linda received her first dog in 1988. "It was the greatest thing. I could go out on my own," she recalls. Being in Vinton has always made it a little easier anyway. "A few times I've gotten lost. Got in a panic. I always had someone come to my rescue," she says. "It's nice to go to the store. When I go in someone always comes up to me and says, 'Can I go through with you?'" Just then a 12-year-old girl bursts into the home. It's Kyle, one of their five grandkids. The Miracles raised two children. Their son lives in town and drives a food truck. Their daughter is a vocational counselor in West Des Moines. Linda had decided she needed a dog guide soon after her daughter had left for college. Kyle is here to collect a $20 donation for the firefighters' pancake breakfast. Woody will give more. "It's $20," Kyle tells him again. "We're going to give you $50," her grandfather insists. "We're making a donation." The Miracles step outside to get their picture taken. A motor roars. A woman, presumably a neighbor, is cutting the Miracles' lawn. The Miracles smile for the camera and walk back inside. Strider the poodle leads Woody and Linda's black lab does the honors for her. Her dog was trained by a woman in Texas who honors the memory of Helen Keller with each dog. The Texan named this lab Ivy Green #7. Friend of Scouts Bill Keller fingers his cup of coffee at the Java Alley Coffee Shop downtown. He moved to Vinton from Michigan in 1980 and makes his living selling software to nursing homes and hospitals. He's glad he raised his son in Vinton and glad his son was a Boy Scout. Scouts helped him grow up. Nearly 30 youths each year belong to the Boy Scouts here and it's unusual if there isn't another Eagle Scout every year. It's not easy for Scouts to compete with sports and other activities. But mothers and especially fathers nudge their sons toward the Scouts and like the results. "It's neat to see them grow up from a little critter to someone who can flip a canoe on their back and doesn't think twice about it," says Keller. Not long ago a group of Scouts canoeing got caught in a sudden windstorm. The canoe "was submarined" but the boys kept their wits. "They saw it as a challenge and not something to be fearful of. I don't know how you teach that to kids," he says. In 1932-33, the Vinton Lions put on a corn and poultry show. They dispensed aid to destitute families. And they sponsored a troop of Boy Scouts. The club has sponsored the Scouts every year since. Lions also contribute when a need arises. "A couple of years ago we went to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. The video we have is kind of funny. One scout is a wrestler, a real tough kid. He comes to the portage with a 109-pound canoe on his back and he's really struggling," says Keller. Youths need hills to climb but maybe not mountains. So the Lions promptly purchased four 68-pound lightweight aluminum canoes for the troop. "They're truly good representatives of the community. They're just nice folks," says Keller, drawing a final swallow of his coffee. School on a Hill A University of Iowa teacher once brought his class to the Iowa Braille School to study and admire its architecture. Built in 1862, a decade after the school's founding, the mammoth structure stretches across a hill, dwarfs the leafy trees that guard it and looms as an irrefutable symbol of a durable commitment to aiding the blind. Inside its walls are earmarks of a complete community. There are sleeping quarters, a cafeteria, a swimming pool, an auditorium, underground tunnels, a playground for the blind with tactile equipment called Woody's Cove (named after retired teacher Woody Miracle) and, of course, scores of administrative offices and classrooms. Dianne Utsinger has been a Lion for 15 years and at the school for a quarter century. "Our focus is the same as before. We educate children who are blind. We're a little like Lions. You find Lions in every community in Iowa. Today you find blind children in every community in Iowa," says Utsinger, school administrator. Decades ago, at least Monday through Friday, the blind children were here. Today eight children, who often have multiple handicaps, live on campus and 400 are served across the state by the school's staff of 100, 60 of whom live and work outside Vinton. The school also holds in-service programs for children. The school teaches not only Braille literacy but also daily living skills, recreation, safe travel, use of adaptive technology and other skills. Maybe adults unaccustomed to being around blind children assume they need to be handled with kid gloves. That blind children can't achieve. That they need to be coddled and pitied. The school looks with a hard eye on such condescension. Lion Mark Wilberg taught for 33 years at the school. "It was like teaching public school students," he insists. He taught industrial arts and students operated table saws. "It does sound dangerous. It can be dangerous," he says. "There are different techniques for safety. You use your hands instead of your eyes. Some of them as adults use table saws and other tools." Wilberg tours a section of the building where history is recreated. A classroom contains old-fashioned desks, a tactile map and early Braille equipment. A dormitory room displays a lumpy, rickety bed and quaint light and nightstand. Down the hall is a room with old band uniforms and in the hall are class pictures more than a century old. Blind kids came here, learned to read and write and to fend for themselves. Lions were with the blind students every step of the way. They threw (and still throw) a Christmas party for students. They gave them a Braille typewriter at graduation (now they provide to ninth-graders a Braille computer or other sophisticated adaptive device). They took them to symphony concerts, bought uniforms for the Girl and Boy Scout troops at the school and transported their parents to the school for visits. "Our club has always had this advantage: we can see the results of our service. We can see the need for our service," says Utsinger. The blind are not as omnipresent at the school. Instead, there is a different kind of energy. Vinton won the derby to be a training site for Americorps. Mostly ages 19 to 23, 140 Americorps trainees hunker down at the Braille School to learn the ins and outs of community service before heading out to Midwestern towns large and small. Vinton was the smallest town to vie to be the host city. The first batch of volunteers arrived in 2008. "The town lobbied hard to get them," says Eells. "These are mature, enthusiastic, idealistic young people. You couldn't ask for a nicer group of kids to come to town." Getting Younger Kiddie corner to the Palace Theatre, the Pizza Ranch serves pizza, chicken and lots of Lions. The club meets weekly at noon. Many Lions work a block or two away and just walk on over. The flip side is that as Vinton has become more of a bedroom community-many wage earners now work in Cedar Rapids or Waterloo-joining the club is problematic for commuters. The club has supported at least 29 organizations in the last four years to the tune of $50,000. It supports the hospital, youth camps and leader dogs. It sent shoes to kids in Afghanistan, gave the police department a portable defibrillator and backed the American Legion's traveling memorial wall. Lions screen schoolchildren in town for vision problems and work with optometrist Mike Martin, a Lion, to provide eyeglasses. Vinton Lions freely admit they are not a perfect or even a typical club. They don't wear vests. Some don't wear their pins. They could do a better job of adding women as members and getting more involved in district projects and meetings. They also are not big supporters of LCIF or the Iowa Lions Foundation. Eells explains by cupping his hands and mock-shouts, "There's always an old guy in the back who yells, "Is it local?' " Yet the club has been successful in maintaining membership and even staying relatively young. "For a small town we're doing phenomenal," says Woodhouse, the dentist. "We've had 10 to 12 younger members in the last year, The assistant principal [who joined] was in my daughter's class. That helps a lot. "The Lions club and Kiwanis do a lot of good things. Maybe that's the best thing about a small town. My kids are not involved. I'm involved. I'm not saying that to pat myself on the back. People are so busy they don't do service clubs like they used to. I think it's harder in a larger town to get service clubs going. Here people know each other. There's the chance to give back to the community. The advantage to being in small town is that you see someone on the street and say, 'Hey, we have a Lions club. Why don't you try it out?' " The Kiwanians inevitably come up when Lions talk about themselves. Kiwanis is down to one club in town instead of two. The Lions respect the Kiwanians-but that doesn't stop them from figuratively poking them in the ribs."I tell the Kiwanians your trial period is over. It's time you joined the Lions," says Kerdus, the CPA. Says Mossman, the attorney, "Kiwanis is a good club. For a while they could kid us: we were the old man's club. But we've picked up a lot of younger members. Last year or so more members are younger. We don't have kids but we have members between 30 and 50." The Lions are not clannish. They mix and cooperate with other groups and sometimes even throw a few dollars their way. Eells is forever grateful to the Kiwanians for a $100 scholarship he received. A few years ago he repaid them and then some with a $1,000 donation. Small Towns By sheer coincidence, NPR today is airing a report on the "hallowing out of small town America." A professor from the East lived in a small Iowa town (not Vinton) to study the sad development. Young people, the best and brightest, go off and get educated and don't return. Small towns, the professor say, are in danger of losing their vitality. Callers phone in. Many agree. Some offer counter evidence. One caller doesn't argue with the basic premise. But, she says, the advantage of being in a small town is that it doesn't take a large group of people to affect change. A small community can be shaped by a core group of committed citizens. As a newspaperman, Dean Close prides himself on seeing things as they are. Don't shoot the messenger. "We're still recovering from a couple of decades ago when industries closed," he says. Vinton may be full of families with kids but there is that gap of college-educated adults in their 20s. "We're probably not doing any better than most. For kids to come back from college, there just aren't those kinds of jobs,' he says. He does agree that a small band of people can make a difference. "It's true. You see that a lot. People see there's a problem-they make improvements. There not a lot of red tape here. That's part of our culture. You see people come together." A Lions club helps channel community activism and build solidarity. "Speakers came to Lions meetings to speak in favor of the school improvement. One of the goals of groups like Lions is to get people acquainted with people trying to make change," adds Close. Pat Lyons, 48, writes a column for the newspaper. He's part owner of the paper and part owner of Ideal Industries, a manufacturer that is the largest private employer in Vinton with 45 workers. "We're very fortunate most of what our community has done for the economy is develop our infrastructure," says Lyons. "It's things like school that attract people." Like others, Lyons moved away, in his case to Des Moines and elsewhere. Now his two children attend high school in Vinton. "Folks my age are really interested in making sure this is a good place to raise your kids," he says. A Lions club serves that purpose. "A small community needs a conduit for community service," says Lyons, a Lion. "You need an organization in town for individuals and groups looking for support and help. You need a contact point that can help sharpen the focus of these efforts. "In Iowa we're conservative. I don't mean that in a political sense. We're not necessarily huge risk takers. We're not a hotbed of entrepreneurism. We see something needed, we get it done. If you look at Iowa in general it still hasn't cut its agricultural connection. It still has that mentality: just do it yourself. Just get it done. When you live on a farm, that's what you do. That's how a Lions club makes a difference. When you see a need you don't wait for someone else to do something about it."
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