On Jan. 18, 1916, at least 29 men were called to order in a “dingy, poorly lighted” hall at 704 Congress Ave., above Burt’s Shoe Company. During the meeting, the Austinites signed a charter for what became the oldest continually active chapter of Lions Clubs International.
Mysteriously, the name of a 30th man, Thurlow B. Weed, of Weed Funeral Home, was found much later on a duplicate charter.
Among the original signatories were Joe Koen of the fine jewelry dynasty; Harry Reasonover, “barber to the governors”; John Gracy, son of the Gracy Title founder; Chester T. Cromwell, managing editor of the Austin Statesman and Tribune; as well as Wallace and John Tobin, members of the always-prominent Tobin family.
Other charter members made their livings at banks, grocery stores, photography studios, lumber yards, insurance companies, optical shops, bookstores, plumbing and electrical suppliers, general contractors and cigar shops. Present too were a medical doctor, a dentist and an ophthalmologist.
The first female member, Mrs. J.L. Landrum, was inducted in the following year. The international body, however, nixed that idea in 1919. Women did not return to the downtown club until 1987, when Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Cecelia Burke joined.
Over the years, among the leading lights in this chapter were U.S. Congressman Jake Pickle, Austin Mayor Gus Garcia and all-round civic savior Willie Kocurek, who joined in 1938 and died 2009.
“Willie was an icon, our mainstay,” says member Alan Wayne Ford. “Jake Pickle, too, was a larger-than-life member. He just about paralleled Willie. They earned their 65-year service award around the same time.”
The oldest living current member, Moton H. Crockett Jr., is 93.
And of course, the main Austin chapter is best remembered for sponsoring, in 1920s, what would become Lions Municipal Golf Course, recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its role in desegregation in 1951.
That isn’t all.
“We planted the pecan trees along Barton Springs Road,” says two-time club president J.P. Kirksey. “And we built the scoreboard at House Park honoring Austin High School students after World War II.”
Clearing up its identity
Much is known about the Austin Downtown Founder Lions Club because of two publications, “Thirty Years of Lionism in Austin, 1916-1946,” by Standard Lambert and Walter Pierson, and “Austin Downtown Founder Lions Club: A Century of Service,” edited by T.L.H. to toast its 100th anniversary.
The second book proclaims in its first sentence: “The Austin Downtown Founder Lions Club is the oldest club in the largest service organization in the world. That fact alone is stunning, that we in Austin — of 1.4 million Lions, serving in over 46,000 clubs in over 200 countries around the world — are the oldest of all ‘in continuous service’ to our community here in the Texas Hill Country.”
Earlier this year, the club staged a stately Centennial Gala at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Delegates from other clubs, including those spawned around Central Texas by this “founder” group, attended. Honorary titles floated like golden tresses from the dais. Yet the evening also served to educate outsiders.
Early on, the Lions mirrored the national Progressive movement’s goals of civic improvement, and continued to plug into patriotic causes during World War I and World War II.
Like the Rotarians, the Lions Clubs are a service group, not a “secret society” with arcane, elaborate rituals. The Rotarians focus on fundraising and count among their chief causes promoting peace, fighting disease and supporting education.
For their part, the Lions Clubs tend to be more hands-on. Among their activities are running camps for kids with disabilities, and as Helen Keller urged them to do, they became “Knights of the Blind,” working to restore sight and prevent blindness on a global scale.
So where did the idea for the Lions arise?
Two early leaders, Dr. William P. Woods of Evansville, Ind., and Melvin Jones of Chicago, are credited with launching the Lions movement. Because Dr. Woods had started an earlier but vanished group, the Royal Order of Lions — a secret society along the lines of the Moose, Elks, Bears and Eagles — San Antonio’s Lions Club claims seniority over Austin’s, because its Royal “den” was started in 1915.
Yet it appears that its activities were suspended because of military recruitment during World War I, and it re-emerged as a sister to the Lions Clubs International outfit in Austin in 1919.
“San Antonio likes to claim it is the oldest club,” Kirksey says. “It’s been a matter of contention for many, many years. But there’s no animosity.”
One thing both clubs share is the Texas Lions Camp in Kerrville. It was started in 1949 in response to a polio epidemic. On June 8, 1953, the camp was dedicated “to the perpetual use and enjoyment of the handicapped children of Texas.” It now serves more than 1,500 children a year.
Why a Lion?
Native Austinite Alan Wayne Ford grew up in South Austin and attended Travis High School and the University of Texas. He worked for 33 years for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. He joined the Lions in 1984.
“At the time, my interest might have been more oriented to networking,” admits Ford, who served as club president in 1990-91. “Mine then shifted more to the service aspects. I’m the unofficial historian, only by virtue by having hung onto some things when others threw them out.”
He witnessed the downtown club planting dozens of chapters around Central Texas.
“The group puts out feelers in other locales that show promise,” he says. “And we talk to community leaders to determine if there’s a need. We fill those needs where we perceive, like we did back when we brought whole trainloads from the VA hospital in Temple to go to a show or a UT game.”
Not long ago, the downtown group started meeting at the former Elks Club on Dawson Road. While women were once limited to all-female auxiliary clubs known as “Lionesses,” now almost half the members are women.
“Women have kept the club afloat,” Ford says. “I can’t imagine where we would be without them. We were among the first to induct women.”
Ann Ward grew up in Breckenridge, attended Texas Tech University and then worked for several publications and hospital groups. She joined the Lions three years ago.
“I grew up around Lions,” Ward says. “My dad was a Lion for 70 years and served as past district governor. When I had time, I joined him for the good works that they do all over the world. I was in Katmandu, Nepal, where there was a Lions Eye Bank. You see Lions all over the world. It’s pretty cool.”
She has watched the Lions adjust to the generational changes in social clubs.
“One of the things Lions are doing to attract younger members is a cyber-club,” she says. “They meet online but come together for in-person service projects. Lions are sponsoring campus clubs, too. UT and Texas State are among them.”
Kirksey grew up in San Angelo and arrived into UT in 1962. He joined the Lions in 1972.
“My father had been a Lion,” Kirksey says. “I was familiar with the activities. And I received student awards from Lions Clubs. A very good friend with me in the Longhorn Band coerced me to come find out more about the Austin Downtown Founder Lions Club.”
Kirksey is proud that the group asks a wide range of speakers to inform members about their backgrounds.
“We don’t discuss partisan politics or debate sectarian religion,” he says. “Today, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jews all view the group with the same purpose. We recently had a Muslim imam here for an informational presentation.”
Decades ago, they also put in “ill-fated” fountains on Lady Bird Lake, including five at Lou Neff Point. They have since disappeared.
“It was our club’s 50th anniversary gift to the city,” Kirksey says. “Not sure where they are now. Your guess is as good as mine.”