Jay Copp 2016-07-26 09:28:42
The verdict is in. Lions’ Centennial president is Chancellor Robert Corlew, elected in June at the convention in Japan. Entrusted with the reins of leadership in a pivotal year for Lions Clubs International, Corlew will be on trial, so to speak, for 2016-17. “I’m scared, humbled and energetic,” he says with an easy laugh. “I think that during our Centennial year we as Lions can have a tremendous impact on the world. We all have to work together, to pull together in every club, every zone, every district.” As president he’ll travel worldwide to meet with clubs, service and nonprofit leaders, presidents, kings and dignitaries. He’ll lead the board and help direct policy for Lions Clubs. He’ll squeeze a lifetime of experiences in a single year. But it will be the experiences of his lifetime that will inform his choices and decisions. Serving in the limelight is not new to Corlew, 63. The Tennessee resident worked as a judge and chancellor for 30 years. As a chancellor, hearing civil cases, he ruled on several high-profile, contentious cases involving businesses and government. He also worked as lawyer, taught law, and, at age 29, served on the city council in Murfreesboro for two years. Corlew’s service as a Lion has been similarly impactful. Not long after joining the Murfreesboro Lions Club, large, thriving and not shorthanded, he nevertheless became secretary. He dove into service, flipping pancakes, selling brooms, light bulbs and mops and raising funds for the opening of the Tennessee Lions Eye Center for Children, which quickly became a premier clinic. Need and Corlew seemed to intersect. Attending the charter night of a club as district governor, an epic storm hit the community, and flood waters raged, stranding people in their homes. The new band of Lions put down their knives and forks, jumped into motorboats and rescued frightened people. A Precocious Youth Located 25 miles from Nashville, Murfreesboro was a sleepy town of 40,000 when Corlew was a boy. His father raised beef cattle on 70 acres and taught history at a university. The oldest of three children, Corlew was unusually precocious. In second grade, he and a classmate started the 77 club, an imitation of the civic clubs to which Corlew’s parents belonged (alas, not a Lions club). “You had to be 7 to be in second grade, so that’s where we got the name,” he says. Most of the class joined the 77 Club, and its main purpose was to hold a picnic—until they set their sights on “environmental protection,” as Corlew puts it. The water fountain on the playground was leaking. “We kept the water from getting under the swings and slides,” he says with a wry smile. Just a year later, at age 8, Corlew continued to show a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit—a trait that came in handy years later when he was a Lion—when he went into the gasoline sale business. A friend of his dad was an oil distributor, and his dad had a 200-gallon tank. Corlew bought the gas from his dad’s friend at wholesale price and sold it to neighbors at retail prices. Sometimes his daring worked against him. When he was 8, he took his dad’s two-month-old truck for a spin around the farm and crashed into the barn. As a constant reminder of his folly, his dad did not have the dent repaired. Yet Corlew as a youth was an achiever, not a delinquent. Interested in civics, he secured a position as a page for an Alabama senator and lived in Washington D.C. as a high school sophomore. He shared an apartment with other pages, attended high school for three hours each morning and then spent the bulk of the day writing congratulatory form letters to constituents. “I did have dreams of being in government,” recalls Corlew. “That did not happen, but my year in Washington had a big effect on me. I was walking on the Senate floor with a lot of folks I saw on television and in the newspapers.” Corlew actually became part of the media himself when he resumed high school in Tennessee. Before classes began, he stopped at a local station to read the news onair. Corlew is gifted with a “radio voice”—deep yet pleasant. As a summer job in college he worked at another station in Murfreesboro. “He had a good voice, a good personality, willing to work cheap,” explains Austin Jennings, the station owner who hired him. Jennings was not only a Lion but—an eerie coincidence—became international president in 1988. Corlew studied history at Davidson College in North Carolina, becoming president of his senior class. He also signed up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and eventually served in the Army Reserve for a dozen years before retiring. Lion Corlew does an eye screening at a school in Tennessee. Photo by Matt Michels At Davidson, Corlew tutored disadvantaged children, some of whom made an unforgettable impression on him. That powerful volunteer experience, as well his years as a dedicated Boy Scout (becoming an Eagle Scout) and other instances of community engagement, helped make him who he was. “When we look back on our lives, there are probably things that happened that shaped us,” says Corlew. “Things that made us feel, ‘you know, I’ve got to make the world a better place. I’ve got to make things better for my town, my community.’” He became a Lion in 1978 when he was a new lawyer. His introduction to Lions was quaint. A realtor who shared his office building, also working late that night, invited him to dinner. “He didn’t tell me where we going when we got into the car. It was a Lions meeting,” he says. That turned out to be just fine. He knew many Lions already, and they welcomed him warmly. “I learned from that experience that when we have visitors to our club that the attitude we have and the warmth of our welcome is so important,” he says. Two other factors figured into him becoming a Lion— one very important and one not so important. “The Lions were very eager to tell me immediately about the projects the club did. The club was so active in the community,” he says. “The food was pretty good too.” Corlew embraced being a Lion and especially enjoyed helping youths. His Noon Club started a Kids Fest, bought gifts for children at an orphanage and did eye screenings. “We detected eye problems—a couple of which might have been life-threatening for the young person if we had not had the eye screening,” says Corlew. Being a chancellor influenced his approach to being a Lion. “I think through my work I had the reinforcement of the need to listen to all points of view. I think I had more patience to listen to conflicting points of view,” he says. “My work on the bench was a big factor that helps me be a better Lions officer.” His life got even richer when he met Dianne. His passion for cappuccino led to their meeting. Driving to a conference with time to kill, he stopped for a cappuccino in the faculty lounge at the law school where he taught. He bumped into the school’s registrar, whose son was a patient of a doctor at a pediatric clinic where Dianne was a physician’s assistant. “I think you should meet this doctor,” the registrar suggested. Corlew did and also happened to meet Dianne. After a year of dating, they married. “I think what I realized with Bob after dating for a while is our opposites balanced. We have a lot of things we’re not alike, and then a lot of things where we had the same interest. After dating for a while I realized our opposites balanced,” says Dianne. The Corlews are the proud parents of five grown children and five grandchildren. Three of their children live within a few miles of them, and the family gets together often. One of the most important lessons Corlew tried to pass on to his children also applies to his life as a Lion, encompassing both fellow members and people they serve. “We tried to teach the children that some people are fortunate and some are not as fortunate,” he says. “Some people are smart and some are not. Some people have plenty of financial wherewithal and some don’t. You’ve just got to respect everybody for the talents and abilities they have.” Thinking about how far he has come as a Lion, Corlew shakes his head in wonder. “When I was a very young Lion I remember being so excited when the governor came to visit. I remember thinking, wow, I need to wear my suit that day,” he says. But it’s how far he can take Lions Clubs that matters to him now. “I hope we can say at the end of the year we grew individually as Lions and that we grew as an association, that we grew in our membership, in our service to the world,” he says. “The opportunity to serve as the 100th president is just an unbelievable dream. Becoming president means to me the opportunity to provide service that can change the world.” Extra Digital Content The personalities, programs and predilections of international presidents have helped shape Lions Clubs International. The 1921-22 president, Ewen Cameron, an insurance executive and state senator in Minnesota, advocates “having one or more activities chosen by the International Association and then having the local organizations coordinate their activities along these lines” (September 1921 LION). The 1932-33 president, Charles Hatton of Wichita, Kansas, a real estate executive, asserts that in a “year of [economic] bewilderment” Lions are numerous and up to the task: “this united band is a greater organization that followed Alexander the Great” (August 1932 LION). The 1959-60 president Clarence Sturm of Wisconsin, a vice president of CARE, argues that Lions are uniquely qualified to foster “international friendship” and dedicates his presidency to that principle (July/August 1959 LION). Watch President Corlew's theme video and learn more about his theme. Corlew Confidential “Bob said a friend told him this story. One day he [Bob] was eating lunch in a tiny little town. Some person pointed to him and said, ‘You know he’s one of the judges that come over here. You know I’ve been before all of them. That’s the politest SOB that ever put me in jail.’” Scott Corlew, Corlew’s brother and a surgeon “Bob is—I hate to say it—softhearted, but he is. He’s a very kind person and empathetic. Even as a little girl if I had something like a toy break or an animal dying, Bob was certainly one of the folks I wanted to tell first. Because I knew he would understand and we’d have a little funeral.” Mary Catherine Seiver, sister “In his role as judge, I would watch him in the courtroom. He was very patient. My impression before was that a judge is somebody that has to be very stern. But I learned by watching Chancellor Corlew that it’s possible for a judge to have a kind spirit.” Brent Pierce, an assistant district attorney who was a student and intern of Corlew’s “I see him being compassionate as we travel as Lions and we see different projects. There are times those projects bring tears to your eyes. There are so many people that just do not have the opportunities that we have. It makes you feel very fortunate, makes you want to help so much. And so I’ve seen that compassion extend not just from his work and his family but also very much in Lions.” Dianne Corlew, his wife “Something I’ve learned from my dad is just stay motivated. Everybody hits tough times. Just keep on going through it. Things do get better. And stay positive. You can find good things in everything.” Robert ‘Roby’ Corlew IV, son
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