Jay Copp 2017-02-28 14:43:40
Lions discover the advantages of unity in the woeful 1930s Amid the anguish of the Great Depression, Salisbury Lions in Maryland opted for a theatrical display of confidence that better days were ahead. So in May of 1931 they convinced 100 businessmen to march in a funeral parade complete with a hearse and a drum and bugle corps. Two men leading the parade carried a sign that read “The Passing of Old Man Depression.” At the courthouse a pastor sermonized on the evils of the undearly departed, and an effigy of the terrible old man was burned. Comforting humor aside, clubs nationwide were actively aiding the unemployed, needy children and struggling families. Drawing the open mouth of lions on large sturdy cardboard boxes, Lexington Lions in Kentucky asked the public to “feed the lion” by donating food. Long Island Lions in New York held a theater party and used the funds for coal and clothing for the jobless. Carlsbad Lions in New Mexico organized weekly hunting expeditions to secure meat for families. In 1930 and beyond as the Depression worsened, Melvin Jones and other Lions leaders at headquarters in Chicago grappled with the consequences for Lions. The 1920s had been an era of rapid expansion for Lions Clubs. Many clubs had found their service niche, whether it be helping children, promoting good citizenship or cleaning up parks, rivers and streets. Most commonly, heeding Helen Keller’s plea for Lions to be Knights of the Blind in 1925, clubs aided the blind. But now with the nation reeling what was the proper course for the association? Should it prioritize service that salved the wounds of unemployment? Should headquarters retrench? Could clubs keep up with their dues and was expansion still possible? The Great Depression would test the mettle and might of Lions Clubs just as it had begun an upward trajectory. By the end of the decade, Jones and Lions leaders had discovered that a national crisis would not splinter the association but instead show that clubs could assume a shared purpose and in doing so strengthen the identity and bonds of Lions. Early on, few foresaw the length and depth of the economic disaster. Lions shared in the outlook that the downturn was a temporary phase. As editor of the LION, Melvin Jones ran a series of optimistic articles. “Business Depression is Largely a State of Mind,” written by businessman A. D. Stone, ran in the LION in June 1930. In April 1931, based on the “facts and figures” compiled by the Central Trust Company of Illinois, the LION blared in a large headline that “Unemployment Has Begun to Fade.” In actuality, the Depression would not release its grip on America until nearly the end of the decade. Lions weren’t being laughably obtuse. They valued their bonhomie, their predilection to look on the bright side and believe in themselves and social institutions. East Cleveland Lions in Ohio thumbed their nose at the economic woes and held a Hard Times party in 1930 in which an outlandish costume of club bulletins and meeting announcements won first prize. Clubs held ceremonies in which a Lion, dressed as a doctor in a surgical gown and mask, gave birth to a baby doll christened “New Prosperity.” More seriously, the LION editorialized in 1933 that that the “Depression has not been all bad … It has made men more considerate of each other. It has awakened in them an appreciation of spiritual values which before have been too much neglected.’’ Yet despite their good cheer clubs redoubled their efforts to assist those in need. In 1932, Lusk Lions in Wyoming worked with the American Legion to create a municipal woodpile so people could heat their homes and men would have work. Shreveport Lions in Louisiana established a Poor Kiddies Shoe Fund so no child went to school barefoot. Knowing industry needed a boost (if yet ignorant of the long-term health consequences), Mullins Lions in South Carolina held a Tobacco Festival that drew the biggest crowd ever seen in town. The question facing Lions headquarters was whether and how to mobilize clubs in countering the Depression. Since its founding, a tension had existed within Lions Clubs international over whether clubs could operate without directives or should be enlisted in association-wide initiatives. In the mid-1920s, after the appeal by Keller, Lions leaders agreed that helping the blind was Lions’ signature cause. But clubs were free to fulfill that mission as they saw fit. Amid the Depression, an impoverished family camps by the roadside in 1936 in Blythe, California. Lions leaders decided that the Depression required a special united effort. In October 1931, International President Earle Hodges of New York City asked all 80,000 Lions to rally around “Lions Business Confidence Week.” Lions and other businessmen’s groups would “crack the backbone of industrial depression” by spending $200 million. Melvin Jones reasoned, “The more buying, the more goods manufactured. The more manufactured, the more employed.” Thirty-eight governors and 23 railroad presidents endorsed the plan. Several months later at the convention Jones reported that nearly $600 million dollars had been placed in circulation thanks to the Lions plan. The grip of the Depression had hardly loosened, but President Herbert Hoover wired his gratitude to Lions for their “efforts to encourage a spirit of optimism.” Early in 1932 Jones represented Lions at a White House conference of civic and business leaders. Hoover’s chief request was that the public stop “hoarding” funds and leave their money in the banks. Back in Chicago, Jones ran a story in the LION urging Lions to speak at churches and shows about the importance of not withdrawing their funds from banks. Aurora Lions in Illinois took his plea to heart. After a panic in which residents stood in long lines to withdraw their savings, city officials closed all businesses for five days. The city council decided to ask the 20,000 residents with accounts to sign a pledge not to draw any money for hoarding.Lions went out into the community with the pledge cards and within a week more than $700,000 had been deposited in the banks. Lions Clubs faced its own struggles to balance its books and keep and add members. In fiscal year 1930, only partly affected by the Depression, membership increased by nearly 9,000. In 1931, the gain was a paltry 1,042. The news was negative the next year as well. Nearly 250 new clubs has been chartered, but membership was flat. Many veteran Lions were quitting. Headquarters was suffering, too. Salaries were cut, and 10 percent of the staff was laid off. In 1933 headquarters again laid off more staff and reduced pay as some clubs failed to send in their dues. Throughout the 1930s Lions clubs took on the dual role of sponsoring familiar projects while paying special attention to the economic misery. Stockton Lions distributed 7,500 safety stickers as part of their Drive Safely Campaign. Edison Lions in Georgia helped tornado victims. Kennet Lions in Missouri built a cabin for the Boy Scouts. When massive flooding struck the Ohio River Valley in 1936, 2,700 clubs donated money, food and clothing. Other projects deliberately targeted the economic woes of the times. Grand Forks Lions in North Dakota bought hay for farmers to carry their livestock through the winter. Hogeland Lions in Montana compiled a survey of destitute families to aid the Red Cross. Sauk Rapids Lions in Minnesota helped farmers by securing a potato buyer for their crop. A little hope together with some relief went a long way in tiding people over. Headquarters’ service statistics in 1933 reflect clubs’ dual approach. Nearly 4,000 children received eyeglasses. Lions gave 1,198 white canes to adults. They planted 44,117 trees and placed nearly 2 million fish in lakes and streams. But clubs also provided nearly half a million free meals, distributed 12,617 Christmas baskets and spent $16,697 on milk for schoolchildren. Clubs were formed with the precise purpose of easing the misery of the Depression. Chartered in 1931, the Pacific Lions Club in Missouri was a whirlwind of relief. An early club report summarizes its efforts: “Provided work on civic improvement for unemployed men at the rate of $2 per day. Aided destitute families of community. Staged a community Christmas celebration and gave out bags of candy and fruit to the children. Baskets of food were given to several poor families. Furnished undernourished school children with daily breakfasts and lunches, also with shoes when needed.” The confidence Lions preached was at last echoed in the White House with the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in March 1933. “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt famously proclaimed. Lions rallied behind two new government programs in particular, the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The NRA encouraged sectors of the economy to form trade associations. Looking to bring business know-how to a government undertaking, Lions nationwide volunteered to serve on NRA-implementation committees. Clubs also lent strong support to the CCC, which, along with Social Security, was the most popular program of FDR’s New Deal. The CCC took unemployed young men and set them to work on conservation projects throughout the country, from tree planting to soil erosion and flood control. More than 75 percent of all trees planted on public land from the time of George Washington’s presidency to 1942 were planted by the CCC. Lions in places such as Moab, Utah, and Toccoa, Georgia, lobbied for CCC camps in their communities while other clubs took it upon themselves to entertain CCC workers. Economic conditions in the United States slowly improved in the second half of the 1930s. Lions Clubs’ prospects also were more favorable. In 1939 membership jumped by 15,000, and 557 new clubs had been chartered. Lions had become the largest service club group in the world. But there was also reason for worry. “There is war in Europe,” Jones wrote in the LION of October 1939. “There is war in Asia. The oceans are wide; but such is the interrelation of peoples and ideas in our modern world that none of us remains unmoved by these events, and many are the questions raised.” Those would be answered beginning Dec. 7, 1941. Douglas Bukowski contributed to this story. Sources: “An Ideal Triumphant,” by Robert Kleinfelder and Dennis Brennan. Dr. A. P. Wilkinson of the Detroit North End Lions Club in Michigan shares a treat at a Lions’ dinner for orphans in 1933. Extra Digital Content Curbing hunger remains a cornerstone of service. Watch a video on Lions in Hawaii feeding the needy. “Depression Routed” was the headline in the December 1930 LION. Well, not quite—there were many in need to serve. “Nation Applauds the Deeds of Lions” was the story in the November 1931 LION. “Lions are Helping in Reconstruction” was detailed in the December 1932 LION.
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