Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Gig Harbor Lions Club

It’s really amazing when you think about the men and women of the early Gig Harbor community and the various ways they work to make this a successful and prosperous community.  They saw into the future and what could/would happen with hard work and dedication.  Many of the organizations and clubs they started are still in operation today and carrying on the work of those earl visionaries.  

What do you do with your old glass frames when you purchase a new set of glasses?  Most of us give them to the Lions Clubs, who then distribute them to the needy, the visually impaired both a home and abroad.  And, we think of the Lions and its members whenever we walked up or down on the Finholm View Climb on North Harborview Drive.  We pay attention whenever they are mentioned in the local papers about some new community project.  But what do we really know about them unless we are members or have family members or friends who are active in the club?

I thought I would share a few things I learned about  the organization.

In 1917, a 38-year old insurance agent in Chicago, Melvin Jones, came up with the idea of community service.  Was it based on his own experience in the Boy Scouts and their ideals as he was growing up?  (His father was a US Army captain who commanded a group of scouts.)  Perhaps.  Melvin joined the insurance industry after completing his education, and in 1913 formed his own agency.  As most businessmen do, he joined the local businessmen’s luncheon group to network and grow his business.  But he soon discovered that the club was mostly interested in their club’s financial success and had no other outside interests.  Melvin saw little growth and limited lifetime for the group.

He had other ideas, and decided to present it to the group to see how they accepted his idea: “what if these men who are successful because of their drive, intelligence and ambition, were to put their talents to work improving their communities?”  He issued invitations not only to the members of his group, but to all the men’s clubs in Chicago, presented his idea, and lay the groundwork for a new organization.  Lions Clubs International was born on June 7, 1917.  The name Lions was chosen by secret ballot:  Melvin believe the lion stood for strength, courage, fidelity and vital action.  (If you check out the definition, you’ll see the dictionary agrees.)  He left his insurance agency and devoted himself to promoting and leading the new organization, and to attracting new like-minded civic men to join.  His personal code drove him - “You can’t get very far until you start doing something for someone else”.

In three years the Lions became international with the first club outside the United States being established in Canada, and then in 1927, in Mexico.

Remember those glasses we give to the Lions Clubs?  Well, in 1925 Helen Keller appeared at the annual convention held in Cedar Point, Ohio.  She issued a challenge to the members, and they accepted.  The American Foundation for the Blind was only four years old in 1925.  And, Ms. Keller’s challenge:  The opportunity I bring to you, Lions, is this:  To foster and sponsor the work of the American Foundation for the Blind.  Will you not help me hasten the day when there shall be no preventable blindness; no little deaf, blind child untaught; no blind man or woman unaided?  I appeal to you Lions, you who have your sight, your hearing, you who are strong and brave and kind.  Will you not constitute yourselves Knights of the Blind in this crusade against darkness?”  The Lions accepted Ms. Keller’s challenge, which they keep to this day.

Well, the news of this organization traveled west, and those men and women seeking to improve their community heard the cry, and learned of all the good being accomplished by the Lions.  Bremerton, Washington established a club in 1925, and on September 3, 1931, the Gig Harbor Lions Club was established in our community.  The first meeting place was the community hall at the intersection go North Harborview and Vernhardson, now the Masonic Hall building.
Capture of various News Articles on the Lions Club from Peninsula Gateway via iPhone

Many of the prominent men in our community were at that meeting and joined.  Who were these men?  Most of the names are familiar but not all so with a little help of my friends and the internet (and of course the Research Room) I thought I would shine a little light on them and their main occupations again.

  • Reuben H. Berkheimer owner of Berkheimer’s Hardware Store and also had a 6-piece orchestra - installed as Charter President at that first meeting
  • Charles O. Austin owner of sawmill and lumber company
  • William Obendorfer owned Peninsula Dry Goods
  • Dr. C. I. Drummond was a general practitioner
  • P. H. Peyran owner of Hollycroft Farms
  • Hugo Finholm (son of Leander) part-owner of  Island  Empire Telephone & Telegraph Company
  • Leander Finholm owed of Inland Island Telephone & Telegraph Company
  • Fred M. Perkins owner of Perkins Funeral Home
  • Mitchell Skansie was President of WA Navigation Co., Skansie Ferry Co. and Skansie Dry Dock and Ship Building Co.
  • Pete C. Hilseth assumed management of the Peninsula Hotel in 1927 and in 1935 opened Peninsula Hotel Barbershop 
  • H. R. Thurston was Judge in Gig Harbor but also owner of Pioneer Electric Company and strong backer and organizer in starting the Peninsula Light Company
  • Dr. A. S. Monzingo was a general practitioner and owner of Monzingo Hospital
  • Bert Uddenberg was an automobile dealer and insurance agent as well as a specialist in fire fighting equipment
  • Harold E. Roby owner of Gig Harbor Motors  
  • J. C. (Jack) Payne owner of “Super Service Garage”
  • Captain Ernest N. Peacock was a ship captain
  • D. E. Edwards owner of Gig Harbor Garage 
  • R. A. Everson  (have not yet discovered)
  • I. A. Rust owned General Repair Shop and then The Tinker Shop with S. C. McLean
  • Albert H. Fleuss owner of Gig Harbor Machine Works, sold to Harold Cox
  • H. D. Graves owner of Graves Cash Grocery 
  • George Theis (have not yet discovered)
  • A. L. Hopkins was postmaster
  • Edward New was principal at Union High School and Lincoln Grade School as well as owner of Edward New Insurance

You have to remember that Gig Harbor wasn’t yet incorporated so these men had a big job ahead of them in improving, governing and growing the area which was to be incorporated as the Town of Gig Harbor in the following 15 years.  The country was just emerging from the 1929 Depression and it was easy to raise funds needed for some of their projects. Lest you think all they concentrated on in those early days were the sight-impaired, you’re wrong. Check out the following:

It was their moral and physical support used in promoting ideas such as in 1936 trying to get a bridge built across Puget Sound to more easily connect Gig Harbor to Tacoma and points east.  

When north Gig Harbor burned in 1944 they worked to spearhead a fire district to replace the early efforts of a all-volunteer fire department.  The first fire station was built on land owned and donated by Bert Uddenberg behind his dealership where the Gig Harbor Yacht Club is currently located.  Bert also arranged for the first fire truck delivery in 1946 - a 1945 Ford of course.

In July 1946 three members of the Lions Club were appointed to the first City Council:  John Finholm, Keith Uddenberg and Charles Austin who were joined by Tony Stanich (grocer), and Emmet Ross (fisherman).  The new city treasurer was Lion Leander Finholm and the City Judge Lion H. R. Thurston.

According to Gig Harbor LionsClub First Fifty Years History, their largest project for the early 1950s was to level the athletic fields for Peninsula High School.  They also built many bus shelters throughout the district for the children.

But by the late 50s Bert Uddenberg, Jr. says “…the Club took a vote to disband.  …The vote was 4 to 4 but John Insel had not voted and he was asked by Leander Finholm to weigh in.  John broke the tie by voting to continue….”

The 1960s brought a new, much larger project to their attention.  Again, as Bert Uddenberg, Jr. recalls “…the Lions were painting the old town library (you can see a plat for the library at 9104 North Harborview at foot of stairs leading up to Morso’s) across from the Shorline Restaurant and the paint brushes nearly went right through the wood siding.  Frank Van Gorder declared ‘we are going to build a new library.’”  As difficult as fund raising is, the Lions were up to the task.  Land was donated by Dr. Chuck and Ruth Bogue, Reed Hunt put up $1,000 with a matching grant from Weyerhaeuser, and then of course the community participated too by making donations of all sizes.  In 1962, the new library on Judson Street was dedicated and remained there until 1981 when Pierce County Library forced a move out of the town limits.  The building now housing the Gig Harbor Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.    

The 1990s expanded their humanitarian programs while never overlooking their contributions to the local schools needs, disaster education and traditional community services.  November is National Diabetes Awareness month, and you’ll find the Lions continuing their fund raising for this disease and educating the general public about it.

In 2010 The Gig Harbor Lions Club donated their original charter to the Harbor History Museum with the names of all those original members, and most rare of all, the signature of Melvin Jones, the founder of the Lions Clubs International.  
iPhone picture of the Peninsula Gateway presentation of the Lions Club Original Charter to the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, Washington


© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

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