By Sandy Wells
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Ninety years ago, on a hot afternoon in late September, a spectacle in downtown Charleston brought the city to a virtual standstill.
A behemoth seaplane, the first ever to visit Charleston, rose smoothly from the wharf at the end of Capitol Street and roared over the city — a demonstration to promote a proposed commercial seaplane line from New Orleans to St. Louis.
Spectators jammed the South Side Bridge, craning their necks. On city sidewalks, pedestrians stopped to gawk at the sky. In buildings all across town, people leaned from open windows, peering for a better look.
That same day, something else took place downtown, something of far more lasting significance.
In a dining room at the nearby Ruffner Hotel, buffeted from all the commotion, a group of civic leaders gathered for the first meeting of the Charleston Lions Club.
Nine decades later, few recall the mighty seaplane’s visit; the commercial line never got off the ground. But the stalwart Charleston Lions Club remains a community icon to this day.
At 6 p.m. on Sept 29, the oldest Lions Club in West Virginia, joined by members from other district clubs, will gather at the Summit to celebrate the Charleston organization’s 90th anniversary. Robert Browning of the Pineville Lions Club, a former international director, will be the featured speaker.
The year the local club formed, America was re-energizing after World War I. Warren Harding was president, Adolf Hitler became chairman of the Nazi party, Atlantic City hosted the first Miss America Pageant and Coco Chanel introduced Chanel No. 5.
In West Virginia, repercussions from the mine wars dominated newspaper headlines along with Ku Klux Klan violence in the south and problems with Prohibition.
In Charleston, a special commission wrestled with plans to replace the state Capitol, after fire destroyed the Capitol Street edifice in January.
On the day of the first Lions Club meeting, the Gazette ran an editorial decrying the manipulation of crude oil prices. Sports pages reported that Babe Ruth was suffering from grippe.
The Strand Theater offered Cecil B. DeMille’s “Affairs of Anatol” with an all-star cast that included Gloria Swanson. Honeydew melons sold for a dime at the Piggly Wiggly.
From the beginning
“Lions International was only four years old when we started our club,” said 86-year-old Jason Conley, a former president and district governor. “The international was formed in 1917 in Chicago.”
During the first Lions Club session at the Ruffner, the Rev. B.P. Taylor, pastor of the First Methodist Church, explained the meaning of the lion’s head symbol and reviewed the code of ethics.
“The lion has been from time immemorial the symbol of strength, greatness and unrivaled courage,” he said.
Taylor described Lionism as “the greatest degree of strength and courage, the highest and best that is.” It is accepted, he said, that the “lionized” man must accomplish something remarkable for the betterment of humanity.”
Over the years, the Lions Club’s “betterment for humanity” credo has centered primarily on the preservation and restoration of sight. Through the Sight Foundation, Lions provide eyeglasses and eye operations for people who can’t afford them. They also sponsor eye exams, screening clinics and an eye bank.
At a Lions convention in 1925, Helen Keller dubbed the organization “Knights for the Blind,” citing the many contributions to eyeglasses, cornea transplants and other sight-related projects.
“The main thrust is service to the community,” said current president Darius Sigmon, “and the Sight Foundation is still our primary focus.”
Other programs are aimed at combating drug abuse and diabetes, helping the deaf, disabled and elderly and providing college and summer camp tuitions for those in need.
To fill the fund-raising coffers, members have sold brooms, light bulbs, license plates, perfume and Blenko bowls. They also raise money through community events.
In 1929, the Lions Club sponsored the first “Water Regatta” on Labor Day. (A speaker from Western Electric predicted that some in the audience would live to see television perfected.)
For years, the Lions Club sponsored the North-South football game.
In 1960, the group introduced the first West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference basketball tournament. City manger Hugh Bosely, a Lions member, helped get the ongoing benefit off the ground.
During Jason Conley’s presidency in 1972, the tournament enjoyed a record turnout. “The game was in the old arena at the Civic Center,” he said. “Morris Harvey was playing West Virginia State in the final game. The place was teeming.
“The fire department came and threatened to shut us down because there were people standing in the aisles. They broke the back doors trying to get in, and we had to pay to get them fixed.”
In 1981, the club’s 60th year, Charleston Lions made a $12,500 pledge to struggling Sunrise that included a $10,000 challenge gift. In an editorial, The Charleston Gazette praised the organization for its altruism and chastised the Charleston Rotary for not contributing more to the community.
“At one end of the spectrum is Charleston’s Rotary Club, one of the community’s oldest service clubs and surely its most prestigious,” the editorial noted. “The membership includes the community’s most influential and wealthiest citizens. The club, however, does next to nothing in the way of good works…”
Referring to the Lions Club as “the valley’s busiest luncheon club,” the editorial observed that Charleston Lions are into everything. “When members tackle a task, they do so with gusto and are determined to succeed. A good example is the state college basketball tournament.”
Under Conley’s leadership in 1972, the club purchased the first ambulance chassis for Charleston’s Emergency Medical Service.
A Lions member for 62 years, Conley, a retired insurance agent, joined the North Charleston club in 1949 and transferred to Charleston in 1961 when the North Charleston group disbanded.
Recalling his stints as a light bulb salesman, Conley said the bulbs always sold faster in working class neighborhoods than South Hills.
“I had Washington Street to Piedmont Road and had the best sales of anybody. People would say, ‘Oh, the Lions Club. They help poor people with sight problems, don’t they?’ And they’d buy the bulbs.”
During the state’s 100th anniversary in 1963, special commemorative centennial license plates sold quickly, he said. “We made $1 apiece on each one, and we sold 20,000. We donated $20,000 to the Sight Foundation.”
In 1957 and 1958, the local club enjoyed worldwide prominence when Charleston businessman Dudley Simms served as international president.
John Hutchinson, a future Charleston mayor and congressman, lead the Charleston Lions in 1965 and 1966. His wife, Berry, held the presidency in 1977 and 1978.
Lions International has 1.4 million members in 190 countries.
In 1977, John Charnock, a former club president, wrote a kind of mission statement about the significance of the Lions emblem:
“…In our now turbulent times where strife and violence seem to be the keynote, Lionism has proved that everywhere men can be found who forget all thought of personal reward when they can do some little thing to make life better and happier for others.”