Jay Copp 2016-12-28 05:45:45
LION G. M. CUNNINGHAM CAREFULLY STEERED THE DENTED MODEL T OVER RUTTED HIGHWAYS AND NARROW BACK ROADS THAT WERE LITTLE MORE THAN FOOTPATHS. His assignment to small towns and midsize cities in western states was not easy. He sometimes slept in his car when no accommodations were available and was bedeviled by flat tires and rain storms that made driving perilous. It was 1918, and the nation was still reeling from the influenza epidemic that took a half million lives. Among the victims was Cunningham’s son. The grieving Lion carried with him letters of introduction from Lions leaders. Also in his frayed briefcase were newspaper stories that explained who Lions were. Cunningham was an official Lions club organizer—one of two traversing the nation. Cunningham’s mission was deeply personal. He wanted to make a positive impact on the world, to take his suffering and redeem it. But he also shared in Lions leaders’ enthusiasm for Lions clubs: just two years old, Lions clubs were seen as a remarkable tool for communities struggling with meeting residents’ basic needs. Cunningham, friendly but always on task, patiently told curious folks how a Lions club could benefit their town. “Clubs study the needs of their city to know how best to meet the problems that arise,” he explained. In five months, Cunningham established 11 clubs in Wyoming, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. Lion S. A. Hicks, the second organizer, also began a number of clubs. Slowly but surely, Lions began to grow. In 1917, less than 1,000 Lions in 25 Founder Clubs served. By 1920, Lions counted 6,451 members in 113 clubs. A decade later there were 79,414 members in 2,202 clubs. From the start, Lions leaders stressed expansion. Bigger was better. More Lions meant more service. Extension was one of the four initial departments at headquarters (along with Service, Magazine and Supply). Extension agents drove expansion. But so too did chance encounters, shrewd leveraging of celebrities and, especially, Lions’ hard-earned perspective, engendered by the toll of world affairs. Sobered by the carnage of World War I, U.S. Lions saw expansion as a way to further peace among nations. After the horrors of World War II, Europeans, open to an international association that tied people together, eagerly embraced Lions. As tumult and conflict roiled the world, Lions stood out as a beacon of brotherhood. Early international expansion was a simple matter of neighborly border crossing. Detroit Downtown Lions sponsored the Windsor Lions in nearby Ontario in 1920, giving Canada the distinction of being the second nation under Lionism. Mexico became the third five years later when a club in Nuevo Laredo was begun. Its champion was the colorful, larger-than-life Colonel Bill Higgins, the first and perennial president of the San Antonio Lions Club. He had founded a trade bureau for Mexico within the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and he gladly served as an emissary for Lions on countless trips across the border. Internationalism became the official policy of Lions. The third international president, Jesse Robinson of Oakland, California, stressed two themes during his term in 1919-20: a closer bond between clubs and the Association and the need for international expansion. Every president since him has stuck to those principles. The 1929 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, solidified the goal of internationalism. The Lions’ constitution was amended to allow Canada to be represented on the board. A constitutional amendment also was adopted: from now on Lions would strive “to create and foster a spirit of generous consideration among the peoples of the world.” Frank Miles, a veteran from Iowa, received a standing ovation with his speech at the convention. “The spirit of Lionism is a spirit of ‘peace on earth, good will toward me,’” he said. “I would like to see Lionism in every nation, with great annual conventions in which the delegates would come together. The idea of Lions spread to all the world … would make a warless world.” The spirit of brotherhood helped spread Lions—as did a beautiful singing voice and a pretty face. Mary Stuart Edwards, a renowned opera star who sang for U.S. presidents and movie stars, was known to Lions in the 1920s as “our Mary.” A close confidant of Melvin Jones and friend to San Antonio Lions, she sang at conventions and traveled with Lions leaders as they set their sights on new nations. Her celebrity was credited with opening doors and helping clubs get established in Mexico and then Cuba in 1927. The Havana Lions Club soon became the largest in the world. The Great Depression in the 1930s caused many clubs to not fully pay their dues and imposed financial constraints on headquarters’ extension efforts. Still, Lions grew. By 1940, there were 120,251 members in 3,342 clubs in eight nations. Eight nations in Latin America joined during World War II. Then chance favored Lions, as did a renewed appetite for peace and interconnection. In 1946, Bill Tresise was national president of Apex, a community service organization of young adults in Australia. About to turn 40, he tried to extend the age limit but was rebuffed. Traveling to San Francisco for Apex, he happened to meet Lion Fred Smith of California, who would serve as international president the next year. A developer, Tresise was intrigued by Lions, and Lions at headquarters saw their chance to extend the Lions banner to Down Under. Triese began the first Lions club in Australia, in Lismore, in 1947. Jones had wanted to expand to Europe before the war derailed his plans. In 1948, Lions were invited to join a huge meeting of non-governmental groups in Geneva, Switzerland. Prior to the gathering, Lions leaders flew over, connecting with business leaders in Paris, France, and Stockholm, Sweden, as well as in Geneva. All three nations joined the fold that year. That year saw the second largest membership gain in Lions’ history with 31,696 new members. Membership rose to 358,144. Lions’ growth has continued unabated since the 1940s. From its modest beginnings Lions became the world’s largest service club group.
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