Jay Copp 2017-04-19 13:44:35
Lions’ service is typically inspiring. But frequently appearing in the annals of Lions clubs, especially in its first half century, are odd, comic and totally unexpected episodes. Don’t Tell the Lions’ Legal Department You can’t be a true Lion unless you can roar like a lion. At least, that’s what Hollywood Lions in California apparently believed in 1925. Fifty Lions went to the Selig Zoo and, if the LION is to be believed, one after the other knelt beside a real lion and when it roared, roared with it. The winner, perhaps predictably, was President Gil Beesemyer. But how did the Lions compel the lion to roar? That was “the most ticklish part. … Those who were waiting helped to stir the lion into whatever temperamental condition a lion gets in that causes it to roar.” Fight Fire with Firemen Through one project, Lions in California in 1925 saved “thousands of lives and millions of dollars,” according to the head of the Pacific Coast Fire Chief’s Association. Lions teamed up with the association and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer on a film about fire prevention. Oh, Babe Nearly at the height of his prowess and fame in 1924, Babe Ruth slugged two homers in an off-season exhibition game sponsored by Dunsmuir Lions at their town ball field in California. The Sultan of Swat received $1,000 for his appearance. The Lions and acquaintances made quite an impression: “When it comes to beautiful girls, wonderfully fine fellows and the real two-fisted spirit of California, little old Dunsmuir gave us more laughs, more hospitality, more thrills and more things to remember than any place between Broadway and Shasta,” Ruth (or perhaps his publicist) later wrote in a letter. But Ruth’s affection was genuine: he returned to the frontier town two years later to fish with Lions. Read the full story. Be Quiet or You’ll Get it Too One hundred African lions roamed Gay’s Lion farm in El Monte, California, in 1927, and the owners graciously hired a U.S. Army sharpshooter to kill a 200-pound young lion for the joint charter dinner of the El Monte and Alhambra Lions. After the barbecue, it so happened that the district governor had to pause while speaking because the loudness of the roars of the other 99 lions. Risking All for Lions Air travel was still a risky business in 1930 when 24 members of the North West Lions Club in Chicago agreed to fly over their clubhouse. The stunt was held so they could “salute from high heaven the building they erected, the like of which no service club in all the land can boast,” the LION crowed. Before they crammed into the small plane, an insurance agent ceremoniously transcribed their last will and testament. The plane soared to an elevation of 4,000 feet, flew over their clubhouse and landed safely—but not without the grinning pilot making some tight loops. “What devils some pilots can be,” the LION dryly observed. Happy Gilmore In a move duplicated by other clubs over the years, the New York City Lions Club inducted a real lion in 1930. Gilmore attended a luncheon and signed the club roster with a paw dipped in ink. A 1930s Andy Taylor In an era of dangerous roads and reckless driving, Sheriff Jerry Cress, a Mason City Lion in Iowa, drew nationwide attention in 1930 for his traffic stops. He regularly pulled over drivers who came to a full stop and didn’t exceed the speed limit and handed them a congratulatory note. “You drove safely, sanely and sensibly,” the note read in part. “If you don’t know what the other fellow is going to do, slow down until he does. Thanks for your cooperation. Goodbye, good luck. G.E. Cress, Sheriff.” Smooth Sailing Lions pride themselves on perfect attendance—a standard set in the early years of Lions. In 1931, the tailtwister of the Montebello Lions in California was accidentally shot while hunting on Catalina Island. His perfect attendance was in jeopardy, so the vice president sailed 47 miles to the hospital on the island to hold a quick and sparsely attended but nevertheless an official club meeting. Legendary Meeting Robert Ripley of believe-it-or-not fame was the star attraction at a meeting of the Chicago Central Lions Club in 1933. Founder Melvin Jones, a club member, attended. Lions later joked that, believe it or not, Jones, a raconteur who could command a room, sat uncharacteristically quietly for most of the evening as a jovial Ripley regaled the Lions with story after story. OK, Lions, Time to Stop Jawing Sherman Lewis, president of the San Jacinto Lions in California in 1933, called meetings to order with a one-of-a-kind gavel. The well-known big game hunter Edgar Stewart White gave him the lower jaw of an African lion he shot, and Lewis had the bone and teeth finely polished and affixed to a handle. A Poet Who Don’t Know It –‘It’ Being Lions Edgar A. Guest was a prolific American poet who was fondly known as the People’s Poet in the first half of the 20th century. In 1933, he unwittingly wrote about Lions in “The White Cane.” The poem read, in part, “I saw a White Cane glisten as he slowly walked along/And it seemed to catch my fancy as I mingled with the throng. … And then, as he came closer, flashed the thought into my mind:/I know the White Cane’s Meaning—tis the symbol of the blind! … I’ve forgotten who began it, or from whom the notion came/But the White Cane for the sightless is a thought deserving fame.” Needless to say, newspapers that printed the poem were inundated with letters from Lions. The Power of a Pen The Hoover Dam, the largest in the world when completed in 1935, changed the fortunes of that part of the country, and Lions secured the pen whose stroke set the project in motion. Past President John Page of the Grand Junction Lions Club in Colorado was the office engineer at the dam, and he retrieved for his club the pen used by a U.S. government official to sign the $48 million dam contract. Along with the pen, Page warned his club in writing that so many people wanted the pen he was “having trouble retaining possession.” An Eruption of Fellowship In the Hawaiian religion, Pele, the creator of the islands, is the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanos. She also became a Lion there in 1934, the first female Lion. At the charter night of the Kona Lions, while members boisterously belted out a Lions song, an earthquake shook the hall. No one was hurt. So members voted unanimously to make Pele a member. Hey, All Those Extra Pounds Look Great on You Those were different times. To be thin was a sign of malnourishment. So in 1934 a LION headline about a project in Oklahoma boasted that “50 Girls Gain 279 Pounds in 30 Days at Camp.” Similar stories at the time crowed “Making the Thin Ones Plump” and “Pounds Heavier—Tons Happier.” See, It’s Not Just My Club Not every club was successful, and the LION was not hesitant to say so. In 1935, the complete report of a club secretary was: “Activities: None. Committees won’t finish projects. I am disgusted.” Full Circle Lions headquarters has hosted an array of colorful Lions eager to meet the founder and get a gander at operations. In 1938, while on their way to Washington to air grievances with the U.S. president, Chief Bull and other Blackfeet Indians met with Melvin Jones. Also known as Dick Sanderville, Chief Bull belonged to the Browning Lions Club in Montana. A subsequent photo in the LION showed Jones and five Blackfeet huddled close together in a semicircle and smoking cigars. Yep, forgive the stereotype but the story claimed the six were smoking the “pipe of peace.” Jones’ father, incidentally (or maybe not), was a scout for U.S. Army troops that battled Native Americans in Arizona. The Perils of Not Being Punctual In 1939, the Flagler Lions Club in Colorado, newly chartered, staged an air show in their town of 793. A thousand farmers and small-town businessmen and their families gaped in wonder at the daring airborne stunts. But Air Force Pilot Norman Jones, who arrived at the show late and missed the safety instructions, flew close to the ground near a clump of spectators. His plane rolled over and up and ripped downward, crushing people. Farmer Charlie Keller had come to the show with his wife and three children. “A short time before the accident, Mama said to me, ‘Somebody could get killed,’ ” Keller recalled. “God, it was awful. I saw this plane coming. I hollered, ‘Mama, duck.’” His wife, Zenalda, and their six-year-old son, Johnny, were among the 20 people who died. A Club’s Black Sheep Hereford Lions in Texas came up with an effective way in 1942 to boost club attendance: the club bought a goat, and one absent member had to care for it for a week. To assure the duty was not shirked, the miscreant member had to pay a fine for each pound lost by the goat. Grin and Bear It Vincent “Stub” Hascall was the quarterback at the University of Nebraska in 1910. A prominent lawyer, he served as Lions’ international president in 1934- 35. In 1942, still proud of his athleticism, he often told Lions that “no man or beast could stand up to me.” So when the circus came to town Omaha Lions matched him up with Big Boy, a 650- pound bear. Big Boy quickly wrapped up Hascall in a real bear hug and tossed him to the ground. Only his pride was hurt. The Lion Hero An active Lion with years of perfect attendance was one of the first heroes of World War II. Corydon McAlmont Wassell was a country doctor who gave up his practice to serve as a health officer for the Little Rock schools in Arkansas. During the war, the Navy sent him to Java in the Pacific to treat wounded sailors. On May 26, 1942, he was the subject of one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chat” radio programs. Turns out that Wassell ignored orders to save himself as the Japanese advanced and stayed with 12 wounded soldiers, whom he eventually led across the island to the safety of a ship. A book and a movie came next. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Gary Cooper, “The Story of Dr. Wassell” happened to open in New York on June 6, 1944—D-Day. From America With Love As the Cold War took shape in 1946, Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg spent two months traveling throughout the United States and wrote stories for readers in Russia that both praised and vilified America. Before he left, he was asked by United Press International to sum up for Americans what he had learned about them. He marveled at the smooth highways, bristled at the portrayal of his nation in U.S. newspapers and was impressed but baffled by its service clubs. “I have seen luncheons organized by the Lions clubs, where full-grown men, merchants of suspenders or of electric ranges, imitating lions, roared upon command.” An Enemy Invades a Den The Cold War heated up members of the Denver Lions Club in Colorado in 1948—a meeting still regarded as the most memorable in the club’s 100-year history. The invited speaker was Father Igor Kagnovitch, a Russian Orthodox priest from Siberia. Lions expected a speech on the need to overcome differences. Instead, speaking in a strong accent, the bearded priest condemned the American way of life as dissolute. Even worse, he slammed Lions clubs as “tools of capitalistic greed and undercover operations in a worldwide conspiracy to deny the people of the world the benefits of Communism.” The Lions were aghast. Several stormed out. President Lud Rettig snatched the microphone and apologized. Then he paused and revealed it was a prank –the “priest” was Ed O’Brien, father of Lion Ed. Better Late Than Never In 1945, when life expectancy was shorter, Niles Lions in Michigan conferred honorary lifetime membership on Fred Banke, age 86. Pew Preference The members of the Maniwaki Rotary Club in Quebec, Canada, in 1946 were mostly sons of rugged lumberjacks and devout Catholics. Their Rotarian membership drew the ire of local Bishop Eugene Limoges, who chided Rotary as inappropriate for a Catholic. Instead, for no known reason, he recommended they become a Lion, Elk or Moose. Postal Problem In 1946, Overland Missouri Lions did such a great job repainting six community green trash cans that postal authorities alerted the public to stop inserting their letters in them. They Could Sell Ice to an Eskimo In 1949, Guelph Lions in Ontario, Canada, held a raffle for a year’s supply of ice. The winner was Mrs. John Collens, the wife of an electric-refrigerator dealer. Jurassic Lions Special interest Lions clubs that organize around a common identity or concern such as the Fairbanks Snowmobile Fun Lions Club in Alaska and the Lubbock Law Enforcement Lions Club in Texas are nothing new. A predecessor—a club itself inspired by creatures from 60 million years ago—was the Ekalaka Lions Club in Montana. Four years after it was founded in 1946, half of the members had scientific interests including star member Marshall Lambert, a science teacher at the local high school who had an uncanny ability to locate dinosaur fossils. The amateur archeologist unearthed the six-foot skull of the three-horned Triceratops, the four-foot skull of the duck-billed Trachadon and the skeleton of a giant 10-foot lizard that walked upright. Fellow Lions often assisted Lambert, the director of the Carter County Museum, on his elaborate excavations. Top of the Pole Lions know that the men and women they help who are blind are individuals with their own unique stories and histories. But Buffalo Lions in New York were taken aback when they heard the story of one of the 300 blind people they treated to a lavish Thanksgiving dinner in 1951. Arthur Rogers once worked for Harry Altman, the owner of the hall where the dinner was held, and in 1931, when flagpole sitting was a craze and his vision was still fine, Rogers climbed a pole and stayed there, despite the entreaties of Altman. As the hours stretched into days and weeks, Altman was forced to feed Rogers and check on his welfare. After 1,370 hours (57 days), Rogers climbed down with the world record. He told the astounded Lions he still dreamt of his flagpole sitting. Black Leather Invasion Marauding motorcycle gangs, terrorizing the local populace, became part of the national consciousness in 1953 with the release of “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando as the black-leathered leader of a gang of highway outlaws. Lions in California unwittingly became entangled with real-life motorcycle hoodlums in 1957. The Angels Camp Lions sponsored a weekend “gypsy tour” of their tiny mining town for the law-abiding Northern California chapter of the American Motorcycle Association. But motorcycle thugs, their waists girdled by metal chains and leather jackets emblazoned with gang names such as Vampires and Huns, descended on the town and raised havoc. Drunk and out of control, they roared down the streets, shouting obscenities and aiming their bikes at A.M.A. riders and pedestrians. Two riders died when the thugs slammed into a formation of six A.M.A. riders. The mayhem continued until dozens of police officers streamed into town to restore order. The Wonder of It All Next time you tap your toes to “Superstition” or sing along to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” give a shout-out to Lions. Born in poverty in Saginaw, Michigan, Stevie Wonder lost his sight soon after birth. His blindness heightened his sense of hearing. But he had to make do with toy musical instruments bought by his absent father. So his barber gave him a harmonica. His church choir director let him use the piano. Lions heard him beating a drum and gave him a drum set. Motown propelled him to stardom in the 1960s and he’s been on the charts since. Lions helped sign, seal and deliver this superstar. Send in the Clowns Denver Lions looked forward to meetings in the 1950s when talented Lion Chuck Collins, who had his own radio show and who, despite his blindness, walked from his office to the meeting at a hotel without a cane, played the piano. Meetings were even better when he brought along his teen-aged daughter to sing along. Judy Collins later became a famous singer. Coffee, Tea and Pancakes Members of the Hagerstown Lions Club arranged a special charter flight in 1959 and as the plane flew served piping-hot flapjacks to 25 businessmen to promote its third annual Pancake Day. The Roar of Justice Renowned journalist James Kilpatrick of the Richmond News Leader in Virginia was outraged in 1959 when he learned that a pedestrian received a hefty $25 citation for playfully defying a motorist who was blocking an intersection. Seems the driver, not caring if he inconvenienced people, stopped his car in the middle of a crosswalk to chat with a friend walking by. So the peeved pedestrian climbed up the fender of the car and strolled across the hood until descending on the other side. Turns out the driver was an off-duty city police officer. So Kilpatrick reimbursed the man and others he thought unfairly fined through his new Fund for the Redress of Occasional Palpable Miscarriages of Justice, which came to be known as the Beadle Bumble Fund. Richmond Lions were among the top donors to the fund. Practicing Medicine—And Leadership In 1959, Time magazine, alarmed about the lack of country doctors, focused on a success story in a rough-hewn town in Georgia, population 860. A town leader, coordinating the efforts of Lions, lured 27-year-old Dr. Carl Edward Sills from Jackson, Mississippi, by raising $6,000 and building a doctor’s office complete with instruments for minor surgery. The leader of Plains, long before he became the most powerful person on earth, was “go-getting Jimmy Carter, 35.” The Candy Tastes Better, Too Austrian Lions at the 1962 International Convention in Nice, France, got a nice gift for attending: a Pez dispenser with a lion head. The special Pez was courtesy of Edward Haas IV, president of his Lions club in Austria and son of Edward Haas III, the candy executive who came up with the idea of the little candy bricks. (Pez is an abbreviation of pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint.) The Lion Pez, one of the most valuable because of its rarity, can fetch as much as $1,000. Read the full story. Tragic Delivery The U.S. Postal Service is not the only national mail service determined to ensure the mail is delivered. Or maybe the reports looked too important to disregard, but in 1968 LCI headquarters received a packet of forms completed by club secretaries in South West Africa (now Namibia). The papers were brown, ragged and crumbly, as if exposed to a fire, but still legible. Turns out the packet had been aboard a South African Airways flight headed from Johannesburg to England when it crashed in South West Africa. Tragically, all 122 passengers were killed. No Blood Was Shed A quarrel between two Lions led to one of the world’s most peculiar sports spectacles. “They were getting a bit moody after a couple of drinks,” recalled Lion Ian Rowan of the Alice Springs Lions in Australia. “They decided guns, knives, bare hands or camels.” Camels it was. High in the saddle, the two raced each other across a stretch of barren land. Duly inspired, their club launched the Camel Cup in 1971. More than 5,000 fans gather each year in Alice Springs to cheer on the nine races of the “ships of the desert.” Song Doesn’t Ring True Jeannie C. Riley ruffled feathers with her hit song “Harper Valley PTA,” but she also riled Lions Clubs International in 1971 with the release of “The Lion’s Club.” The song tells the story of a man who tells his wife he is headed to his Lions club meeting but instead heads to Jerry’s Bar and Grill. The legal department of LCI issued a “cease and desist” demand, arguing that “Lions Club” is a registered trademark. Plantation Records ignored the demand. Lions had the last laugh: the record did not chart in the United States and climbed to only #36 on the Canadian country charts. The Elephant in the Room Modern-day Lions are generally more sedate than their forebears. But not always. In 1990, Vernon Lions in Connecticut inducted as a member Hugo, a massive gray elephant. The club had an ulterior motive: an upcoming tug-of-war against nearby Lions clubs. Hugo and fellow members easily won the competition, and Lions chose not to “renew” Hugo’s membership.
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