Compiled by Lion Tom Maino, Secretary Emeritus and unofficial club historian;
and prepared by Lion Ed Freundl, past Secretary.
The Michigan Center Lions Club was founded in 1957, being chartered on April 12 with 23 original or charter members. The first club president was Gaylord Donnelly and its first secretary was Paul Fritz.
The charter presentation took place June 6, 1957, at Keicher School. Past International President S.A. Dodge was guest speaker, and District Governor Leonard Burleigh of Lansing spoke about the settlement of early Michigan Center. The club started the year with 23 members and ended with 24: seven new members joined but six dropped out.
In the early days of the club, the men tried almost any ideas for fundraisers. The first was a car wash, raising $80 for the Michigan Center Little League. Next was a softball game with the Leoni Township Fire Department that raised $300, and both rganizations put the money in a fund for a future community youth center. They also sold sun visors at the Round Lake boat races, and sold candy, brooms, and apples. They held a minstrel show and a wrestling match in 1959.
The club grew to 33 members its second year, and finding a place to meet was becoming difficult. By 1959, they were meeting at the Chicken Inn on East Michigan Avenue. By the third year, a building committee was put in place to search for property on which to build a clubhouse — which, to this day, is rare among Lions Clubs, with the vast majority meeting in local restaurants, hotels or community centers. Also in the third year, the club distributed food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and sponsored three puppies for the Leader Dog Training School. They also had a fund-raising basketball game at Michigan Center High School.
In December 1960, the club invited the entire MCHS football team and coaches to a dinner to celebrate their undefeated season. The club also sponsored Boy Scout Troop 333. Another minstrel show in early 1961 was not as successful due to inclement weather, but still raised $300.
By the sixth year, 1962, membership was becoming a problem. At the start of 1962 the club was down to 22 members, and finished the year with 18. In November 1962 the club secretary resigned, and Howard Carris was appointed to finish his term.
In May 1963 the club held a circus as a fund-raiser, but it was not well-attended and proceeds were only $200. This was the club’s first attempt at a “carnival”-type fundraiser, and no one could have imagined what it was to evolve into over the years. In June 1963 the board of directors approved the purchase of a 20-foot trailer to refurbish into a refreshment stand to use at MC football games as a fundraiser, with the eventual goal of buying a scoreboard for the field. The club purchased two Braille transcribing machines for a boy and a girl in the community.
By that point, club members were meeting at the Korner Kitchen restaurant. During the year 1963-64 membership dropped to 15, but the club finished the year where it started, with 18 members. As a result, the Lions state office in Lansing issued a warning to the Michigan Center club to increase its membership and meet its financial obligations, or risk losing its charter. Current Lions members owe a debt of gratitude to then-club president Larry Maino and the other active members whose efforts saved the club from such drastic action. Today the Michigan Center Lions Club is well-regarded as one of the biggest and most active clubs in the state.
In June 1964, membership stood at 16. In October 1964, president Dale Phillips resigned due to business obligations, and Dick Jayne replaced him for the remainder of that year.
In January 1965 meetings were moved from the Korner Kitchen to Tom’s Grill on Ann Arbor Road.
The question of when the Lions Club took over running the Carp Carnival is a matter of much speculation, and the best estimate is 1966. Exact information is sketchy, because many of the records from July 1965 to June 1970 have been lost. Some of the confusion may stem from the Carp Carnival originally being a project the Clearwater Association beginning in 1957, the same year the Lions Club was founded.
The purpose of the carnival was to raise money for weed-control efforts in Center and Round lakes. The Lions Club participated by selling goods from its concessions trailer. It is commonly believed that as Clearwater members slowly lost interest in all the work involved in putting on the Carp Carnival, Lions Club members seized the opportunity to take over the event and make it their premier fundraising activity. The gamble paid off, and by 1970 the Carnival made a net profit of $2,500 on gross sales of $12,700.
Then as now, the Carnival represents the club’s largest single fundraiser for the year, and the profit generated makes up the majority of its annual budget used for charitable donations to community and Lions projects.
In 1970, membership was again down to 15, and meetings had moved yet again, now to T.J.’s Pizza House. By 1976, membership had slowly grown to 29. During 1972, the club donated 10 wooden picnic tables to Leoni Township for use in the township park. Unfortunately, vandals apparently found great entertainment in throwing the tables into the lake. Nevertheless, the club also donated playground equipment for the park, establishing a tradition of making improvements to public property that continues to this day.
That June, the club purchased a vacant lot across from the park at Fifth and North State streets, owned by Ron Holmes, who lived next door. In the coming years this was to become the club’s permanent home.
Although the date is not clear, the club purchased a late-1940s fire truck actually used by the Leoni Township Fire Department. During the 1970s the club made a few hundred dollars by giving rides on the truck at shop picnics, and running it in various community parades. A special license and liability insurance was needed for this.
International and state by-laws specify that funds raised under the Lions Club banner can only be used for charitable projects, not for administrative fees or buildings, so separate fundraisers were held for the clubhouse building fund.
The first section of the current clubhouse was built in summer 1975, with paid contractors doing most of the rough-in work and club members doing much of the finishing. To bolster the building fund the club initiated a 100-Man Drawing, with Larry Maino as chairman. Tickets were sold to club members and friends, and this event later became known as the Michigan Center Lions Draw-Down.
After 20 years the club was well-known and respected for its work in the community. In 1977 the club sponsored a boys Little League baseball team, and that year’s White Cane Sale reached $2,000 in donations for the first time. A dozen new members were welcomed that year, the biggest one-year increase in its history, and ended the year with 37 members.
The following year, 1978-79, the club gave out 14 food baskets for Christmas, the most ever to that point. Members had been doing this project for years, adding to the number as they could afford it. In 1979-80, the club began a scholarship program for Michigan Center High School students. What started as a single, $500 grant now are grants of $1,000 each for one boy and one girl.
In 1980 the club sponsored all boys Little League teams, and a girls Major League team. The 1981 Carp Carnival was a success, due in part to Bingo being introduced. After the fifth year of Bingo games (1986) the club split the proceeds with the Michigan Center Lioness Club, with both clubs sharing responsibility for the project. In 1981-82, the Lions Club was able to distribute 15 food baskets at Christmas, and sponsored three local students to play in the Lions All-State Band. Membership was solidifying at 33.
1982 was celebrated as the 25th anniversary of both the club and the carnival. This was the first year for the Carp Carnival Parade down Michigan Center’s “Main Street,” Page Avenue and Fifth Street, an event that is highly anticipated and enjoyed by the entire community. Originally a Lions project, this too has evolved to become the responsibility of the Lioness Club.
In 1983, the date of the carnival was moved from May to early June, and the public responded by making it a huge success. The White Cane Sale that spring reached another milestone, with $2,025 collected for the sight conservation fund to supply low-income residents with eye exams and eyeglasses. The club finished the 1983-84 year with 47 members.
A 35-foot spruce tree was put in the front yard at the clubhouse in the 1984-85 year and decorated at Christmas, a tradition that continued for years until a permanent tree was planted. Membership continued to climb, ending the year at 55.
1985-86 was an extraordinary year for the Michigan Center Lions. The “Welcome to Michigan Center” sign was erected on Page Avenue near Falahee Road, displaying the emblems of all the service clubs in the area. Lion Dennis McCoy headed that work detail. The 100-Man Drawing was changed to 150-Man, and cleared $1,700 in proceeds for the club’s administrative fund. A 30-foot section was added to the clubhouse, with members doing the inside finish work, giving it the familiar appearance it has today.
The club took over care of the restrooms in the township park, mainly because they were absolutely necessary to the Carp Carnival. In return, the Leoni Township board of trustees gave the club permission to have the carnival in the park for three years, rather than having to come before the board every year. The club brought in eight loads of topsoil to build up and improve the open, grassy areas, and has made large and small improvements to the park ever since.
This was also the year that Carp Carnival co-chairman Larry Maino — with 25 years of perfect attendance at the time — was honored as the club’s first Life Member. The club ended the year with 60 members.
At the 30-year mark, 1986-87, the club had to raise its annual dues, which was an unpopular but financially necessary move in order to offset increases from the State and International Lions organizations. For the club’s 30th year, members designed a 30-year pin, giving a nod to the Carp Carnival by depicting a lion spearing a carp.
The first raffle of an aluminum boat, motor and trailer took place at the carnival, headed by Lion Jerry Mayo. The 150-Man Drawing had grown again, to a 200-Man, and by November — only halfway through the year — another 10 new members were on board. At Christmas, 30 food baskets were given out and two giant Christmas stockings were raffled off. The club also began its Quest program at Michigan Center High School.
The 1987-88 year was another milestone for the club, with the formation of the Michigan Center Lioness Club with 27 charter members. Unlike many service organizations, the Lioness Club is a fully autonomous club with its own projects and fundraisers, and not simply a women’s auxiliary operating in the shadow of the men’s organization.
This was also the year that the club started another tradition for which it is at least as well-known as the Carp Carnival: the Christmas decorations along the community’s main thoroughfares of Page Avenue, Fifth Street and Broad Street. The Lions Club took the lead on organizing the project, and persuaded a half-dozen other local organizations and clubs to participate.
The 200-Man Drawing, by now held at the Grass Lake Lions Clubhouse due to space considerations and led by co-chairmen Tom Maino and Jack Boroff, became the annual “Drawdown,” the name it is known by today. Over the years this project has kept the club’s administrative and non-charitable funds on healthy financial footing. The White Cane Weekend in 1987 was the most successful ever, despite an ongoing disagreement with the East Jackson Lions Club over territorial boundaries on the East Michigan Avenue commercial corridor. Each club raised more than $2,400 that year. The Michigan Center club also won the Carl Sorrick Award as top club in the District, and a Super Bowl Party, an annual member favorite, was held for the first time.
In 1988-89, the club entered an agreement with the township to lease the park restrooms for $1 a year, thus giving the club full responsibility for the building. The club won the Carl Sorrick Award for a second consecutive year, and the Drawdown was moved to March, because the club and its members simply had too much going on during December.
The club put up a permanent tree in the front yard of the clubhouse, eliminating the need to get a new one every Christmas. Gayle Knickerbocker knew someone who no longer wanted theirs, so the consummate “recycler” quickly put it to good use. The club was able to give out 40 food baskets that year. The Lioness Club helped by purchasing candy and games for children, and the Michigan Center Eagles pitched in by providing turkeys and hams.
Past District Governor Vern Shahan, possibly the most knowledgeable person in Jackson County about Lions Clubs International, was speaker at the installation ceremony for officers and new members. He presented the hand-painted lion’s head portrait that hangs on the clubhouse wall. It came from the Lion’s Club in Shahan’s hometown of Bird City, Kansas, and was more than 50 years old at the time.
District Governor Lowell Maxson stepped in that year to finally put an end to the White Cane territory debate with East Jackson, ruling in Michigan Center’s favor. East Jackson would have the businesses on the north side of Michigan Avenue plus Meijer, and Michigan Center would have the south side of Michigan Avenue except Meijer.
1988-89 was also the year that Gayle Knickerbocker and his crew installed the large electrical panel box in the park, helping to eliminate the electrical problems Carp Carnival vendors were experiencing.
Michigan Center sponsored its first District Convention in 1990-91 at the Holiday Inn in Jackson, with an incoming International President at guest speaker. It was a huge amount of work but also a huge success, with Lions throughout the district saying it was one of the best conventions ever.
We sponsored our second District Convention in 2000-01, the same year that Michigan Center Lion George Crane served as District Governor. Due to scheduling difficulties the venue was changed from Jackson to Chelsea, but a half-hour drive did not dim the club’s enthusiasm for putting on another great show.
A new century of Lionism — the 2000s and beyond
In 2003, the Michigan Center Lions took another bold step forward by sponsoring District 11-B-1’s first LEO Club, for youth 12 to 18. Sponsored by a Lions Club, LEOs have an identical organizational structure to and are served by advisers from the adult club. Although they are frequently called on to assist a Lions or Lioness Club to gain experience, the LEOs are responsible for their own fundraising projects as well.
In 2005 the Michigan Center Lions Club suffered the death of six members, the most in any single year — Bob Carroll, Don Moon, Howard Carris, Norm Eastman, Bill Maitland and Larry Maino. These men were considered by many to be the backbone of the club.
Howard was the last surviving charter member, and chaired or co-chaired the White Cane sale for many years. Norm was not only known as a fabulous cook, but also as “Mr. October” for bringing in more prospective new members during that month than anyone else. Bill did a fine job as the bar manager for many years, and he also headed the Christmas Lights project since its inception. Larry was the longest-serving member of the club. He was co-chairman of the Carp Carnival for 30 years, and had 45 years of perfect attendance. It was difficult to lose so many men so important to the club in a single year, and we’ve lost others just as important in the years before and since. But Lionism is bigger than any one member. They are missed, and the best way to honor their memory is to continue working hard for the things they believed in.
The Michigan Center Lions Club is closing in on another major anniversary, 55 years in 2012. Over its history it has endured its share of adversity and triumphs, yet it has persevered and today stands as one of the largest and most prominent Lions Clubs in the state. Although membership was a little rocky at first, the club has had 100 members or more for the past several years, all of whom are proud of their accomplishments and their commitment to the Lions Club motto, “We Serve.”