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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

The Kiwanis Club of Toledo Story

Ever wonder what the story was behind those round placards with the circled "K" you used to see sprinkled next to welcome signs outside of communities throughout the Midwest? It indicated there was a Kiwanis club in town. Kiwanis is an international service club founded in 1915 by a group of Detroit businessmen interested in business networking. Today, it's headquartered in Indianapolis and 16,000 clubs can now be found in more than 80 nations around the world. The Kiwanis Club of Toledo is one of the earliest chartered clubs in the United States. It was chartered as the tenth Kiwanis club on May 18, 1916.

The Detroit founders originally called their club the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order of Brothers, but thankfully the members disliked the nickname people gave them (the 'BOBs') and the overly pretentious name was changed to Kiwanis a year later. As the story goes, the name Kiwanis was adapted from the expression "Nunc Kee-wanis" in the Otchipew (Native American) language, meaning "We have a good time," "We make a noise," or, under another construction, "We trade or advertise." In 1920, the motto of Kiwanis became “We Build.” It remained the motto until 2005, when members voted to change it to “Serving the children of the world.” In the early years, Kiwanians focused on business networking but in 1919 the organization changed its focus to community service, specifically service to children.

In Toledo, early meetings were held at the Secor Hotel, where, according to a May 22, 1916 newsletter, members were reminded to get to the meeting "in time to sign the attendance blank" so they could "wear a BANGKOK or PANAMA HAT without cost all summer." These were fun people who enjoyed the camaraderie of a weekly lunch and knew how to raise money for a 'good turn' by creating and enforcing absurd and goofy attendance rules and fines. Like the first club in Detroit, initially the Kiwanis Club of Toledo was promoted as a businessmen's club with 'booster letters' going out to members imploring them to trade with fellow Kiwanians. Community service quickly became a focus of the club with the outbreak of World War I. The Kiwanis Club of Toledo was very active in supporting the emergence of the Red Cross during the war. The 1920s was a prosperous period for Northwest Ohio and the Kiwanis Club of Toledo. The club hosted the 1920 National Convention and by 1922 had grown to 154 members. The early twenty's also brought on changes to the club's mission, expanding its emphasis from the Red Cross to activities focusing on the needs of area children. Club reports document some of these activities, including entertaining 300 kids at the Miami Children's Home and providing "moving pictures" and candy to the children at the Tubercular Hospital on a weekly basis. A May 1922 report for the Kiwanis Ohio District listed the following club activities:

"During Park Week our club entertained forty (40) children from the Fresh Air School and ninety (90) from the Lutheran Orphanage at Walbridge Park. These children were transported, entertained and fed by our members. Games and numerous methods of entertainment were provided."

The Fresh Air School grew out of a belief in the 1920s that fresh air and sunshine were crucial factors for the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis. The weekly movies shown to the children at the Tubercular Hospital evolved into a long term commitment for the Kiwanis Club of Toledo. The club went on to purchase various items for the children, including radios and a swing set and eventually the club began holding an annual Children's Christmas Party for the hospitalized kids. Club records show that proposals asking for support for the Tubercular "Fresh Air" Hospital received unanimous support from club members during the 1920s.

Unfortunately, the boom years of the 1920s were followed by the dark days of the Great Depression, an era that was very unkind to the Kiwanis Club of Toledo. By 1932, discounted membership dues could not stop a rapid decline in membership as many unemployed Toledoans did their best to eke out the barest of existences. The club's Good Turn Fund balance was reduced to an all-time low of less than $10 and the annual Children's Christmas Party was cancelled. Even the weekly movies at the Fresh Air School were re-scheduled to monthly showings until March of 1933. Miraculously, these budget cutting measures worked and the Kiwanis Club of Toledo survived the Great Depression.By 1934, things began to look up. A membership committee was formed and the work of recruiting new members began as Toledo climbed out of the worst economic disaster anyone had ever seen. By 1935, the club was able to regain its financial stability and re-institute its annual Children's Christmas Party. By April of 1937, the club secretary recorded an active membership of 146 members. Archives show the club had a balance of roughly $813, of which, $464 represented 'Good Turn Fund' collections. Club members jumped right back into their community service roles, embracing the programs they had started before the Depression while actively sponsoring a Boy Scout Troop from the Miami Children's Home, which they adopted in 1930. By 1939, the club began funding meals for undernourished children in Toledo's poorest public school districts. In 1941, as the Kiwanis Club of Toledo celebrated its 25th anniversary, it was once again sending Boy Scouts to camps and assisting the Salvation Army with their summer camp programs. The club secretary reported a membership of 175 active and 3 military members and an attendance average for November 1941 luncheons of 62 members per week.

With the onset of World War II, some Toledo Kiwanis members converted to military memberships but overall, the club's membership held steady. By 1943, there were 167 active members, 2 privileged and 12 military members. Throughout the war, the club invested in war bonds and encouraged its members to do the same by giving bonds as attendance prizes.

Spectators gather in front of the Toledo Fire and Police Alarm Building on Erie Street to watch a float built by members of the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs of Toledo as it passes by in the Aquarama Parade in 1947. Aquarama Festivals, held from 1947 to 1951, were civic celebrations that included parades, contests, and events with a boating and water theme.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Kiwanis Club of Toledo membership numbers began to take off, reaching 206 members by February of 1946. The club's support of the Salvation Army continued, along with other projects including the building of a float for the Aquarama Festival with the Rotary Club of Toledo. The post-war years also saw an increased involvement with local Girl Scout troops. In 1949, the Kiwanis Club of Toledo purchased hearing aids for the Toledo Hearing League and began raising funds for building a cabin at Camp Storer, a YMCA camp in southern Michigan. The club continued to grow throughout the 1950s. Fundraising was accomplished through the annual Kiwanis Peanut Sales and Pancake Days. Projects included the building of an infirmary building at Camp Libbey Girl Scout Camp and the introduction of the Kiwanis Club of Toledo Scholarship Program.

By 1961, membership had risen to 221 members with an average attendance at weekly luncheons of 67. In April of 1961, the club's Good Turn Fund Committee asked for and received approval for supporting the following programs:

  • Boys Clubs of Toledo: $402.25

  • YMCA: $250

  • Boy Scouts: $338

  • Citizens Day Care: $200

  • Neighborhood Improvement Foundation of Toledo: $100

According to the 1968 club archives, the Kiwanis Club of Toledo continued the work it began in the 1920s at the Miami Children's Home by managing the merit badge exams of the club-sponsored Boy Scout troop on a monthly basis. In February of 1968, records show that the club transported the Boy Scouts to a local boat show where the troop was presented with a boat, sponsored by the club. 1968 also included a unique award when the Kiwanis Club of Toledo was presented a plaque from the Champions of Champions Banquet recognizing the organization as having contributed the most to Amateur Sports in Toledo in 1967. The late 1960s also saw the emergence of a new identity for the Kiwanis Club of Toledo. As other clubs began to be chartered in surrounding neighborhoods the club became known as the Downtown Toledo Kiwanis Club. By the mid 1970's, membership in the club reached an all-time high of over 260 members. Club projects included the launch of the Toledo Honor Student program, sponsorship of Toledo walking tour brochures, markers for the Lucas County Historical Society and the purchase of several baby elephants for the Toledo Zoo. Club members also chipped in funds and labor to help build the Zoo's 'living stream' area.

In 1983, while club membership fell to 213 members, the club continued its Boy Scout activities at the Miami Children's Home, sponsorship of activities at the Boys and Girls Clubs and Catholic Club of Toledo, and it began taking on duties at the Special Olympics. The 1980's saw the club transform dramatically with the adoption of women members—Pat Lora became the first woman member in 1987. The 80's were also bitter sweet because the end of the decade marked the club's eventual shift away from the Miami Children's Home, which was soon to close, and the adoption of Fulton Elementary School, located in Toledo's central city.

While still very active in the community, the Kiwanis Club of Toledo experienced a steady decline in membership throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Although smaller in numbers, the club made some big contributions to the local community, including sponsorship of "Muddy’s Marsh,” a children’s playground at 5/3 Field, a playground at Fulton Elementary School, and tutoring programs at Fulton. Since the Fresh Air Hospital had closed, the club also re-purposed its annual Children's Christmas Party to benefit the kids at Fulton Elementary School and chartered a Key Club at Central Catholic High School in 1990. The late 1990s also saw the Club begin sponsorship of the Boys and Girls Club‘s Punt, Pass and Kick Football Programs.

With the closing of Fulton Elementary in 2009, the Kiwanis Club of Toledo adopted the newly-built Sherman Elementary School in Toledo's Warren-Sherman neighborhood. The school was one of the first in the country to include a Boys and Girls Club integrated into the school's design. The Boys and Girls Club at Sherman has been credited with bringing back students to the school, improving academic performance, and decreasing discipline rates. The Kiwanis Club of Toledo paid for the furnishings in the embedded club. 2009 also marks the year the Kiwanis Club of Toledo chartered a Key Club at Woodward High School.

In 2016, the Kiwanis Club of Toledo celebrated its centennial with the replacement of Muddy's Marsh at 5/3 Field with a new playground. Today, the club consists of about 50 active members who are involved in a variety of programs that serve the youth of Central Toledo, including tutoring students at Sherman School, hosting their annual Children's Christmas party at Sherman School and hosting Terrific Kids from Sherman School for a monthly luncheon at club meetings.

I was a member of the Kiwanis-sponsored Key Club at Mansfield Senior High back in my youth and I am a proud, past President of the Kiwanis Club of Toledo (2009-10). I have great memories of my Key Club experiences and I still treasure the time spent helping serve the youth of Toledo with Toledo's Downtown Kiwanis Club. Unfortunately, while I hope someone will be writing about the 125th anniversary of the Kiwanis Club of Toledo in 2041, based on dwindling membership numbers, I have my doubts. Nationally, participation in Kiwanis, excluding its youth programs, has declined by more than 59,000 members since hitting a peak in 1992-93. This doesn't mean people are not engaged in serving their communities—volunteerism is rising. To me, the decline of the Kiwanis Club of Toledo (and other service clubs) spells the end of an era where people want to be part of club that revolves mostly around a weekly luncheon. Today, people just want to dive in and help others in need. They don't want to join a group with club dues, by-laws, 50/50 raffles, sign up sheets, club secretaries, committees and a leadership hierarchy. Only time will tell if this trend shifts back to the past. Until then, I'm sure the dedicated members of the Kiwanis Club of Toledo will keep doing their good work as long as their club can survive.

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