We are speaking of the over-the-counter Illuminati, my friends; the purveyors of smokers and spaghetti dinners and all things in between. Recite their names three times quickly—Rotary! Kiwanis! Lions Club!—and you risk invoking a suburban bugaboo. Eek! Look there! Do you see them too? Thirty burly, beet-faced men in garrison caps: some shilling teeny bags of peanuts, others flipping flapjacks onto Styrofoam plates—and all bellowing the terrifying shibboleth of “Service, Service, Service!” But don’t be afraid, kids, the service club bogeymen can’t hurt you anymore. They’re sealed away forever with pink aluminum Christmas trees, plastic-wrapped furniture, and all the other failed experiments of Boobus Americanus.
Service clubs, it goes without saying, are a uniquely American invention. Preceded by nineteenth century fraternal organizations—the Masons, Odd Fellows, Elks, and others—service clubs offered an alternative to a burgeoning middle class, whose members were unimpressed with the older clubs’ promises of freakish rituals, shaky insurance policies, and, in the case of the Masons, world domination.
The first true service club was founded in 1905, when Chicago lawyer Paul Harris created Rotary Club. Initially conceived for the bland purpose of improving Harris’s networking skills, it was eventually decided that Rotary’s true business was Service (always with a capital “S”). The idea blossomed, and clubs soon sprang up higgledy-piggledy across the nation, and then across the world. With success came copycats: Kiwanis in 1915, and then Lions Club two years later. Whatever their names, “Service!” was their battle cry—a word flexible enough to mean performing any form of charity, from the admirable (serving the blind, as differently abled pinko Helen Keller challenged the Lions to do) to the insipid (taking “widders and orphans” out for a nice lunch). By and large, in their heyday in the twenties, the clubs threw gobs of money at calamities, “boosted” their hometowns, scratched each others backs, and ate much lunch. Sanctimonious and obscenely gauche, yes indeed; at least they weren’t joining another popular club of the day, the Klan. Well, most of them weren’t.
Nevertheless, the intelligentsia commenced a punching-dummy battle forthwith. H.L. Mencken took special delight in savaging the clubs as cretinous exemplars of the booboisie, who spent their time “worrying about such things as the crime wave, necking in the high schools, the prevalence of adenoids, the doings of the League of Nations, and the conspiracy of the Bolsheviki to seize the United States and put every Cadillac owner to the sword.” Another swipe came in the pudgy form of Sinclair Lewis’s George F. Babbitt, whose moronic example forever placed the practice of “Babbittry” only a grain or two above necrophilia. Nevertheless, the clubs persisted, hitting their height in the mid twenties, then slowly ebbing and flowing into the Seventies. Then, as everyone knows, all their members gathered together and stumbled to the legendary Service Club Graveyard, where they laid down and gracefully expired.
Your humble narrator recently made a pilgrimage to his hometown of Oak Forest—a bedroom community five miles southwest of Chicago (eight miles northwest of Park Forest, all you Organization Man fans)—to see how the service clubs there were faring. For our suburban expatriate, attending club meetings was somewhat akin to visiting a museum exhibit on the Amish and watching a docent weave blankets on a loom. A living exhibit that appeared stultifyingly dull at first blush, but which slowly unfolded to reveal an immutable devotion to conformity bordering on—dare it be said?—the esoteric. In light of the strain of nostalgia chic currently savaging our culture (see such abominations as the pseudo-swing movement and the Rat Pack’s inexplicable canonization), the clubs’ stratospheric normalcy approaches a brand of suburban exotica hitherto unimaginable by the hardest-core of hipsters.
Or maybe I’m just not getting enough sleep.
“Service … Above Self”
Rotarianism: It sounds like a religion, doesn’t it? Oh, it is, it is; one populated not by Presbyterians or Catholics, but devout capitalists. Somewhat bereft of the corn pone afflicting other clubs, Rotary’s facility has allowed it to slide into the nineties with more than 1.2 million members, 28,000 clubs, and only a few critical scratches. During the twenties, cultural highbrows considered Rotary the ne plus ultra of organized boobery, and a practical priesthood of American crassness. Aw, heck—the Rotarians I met seemed like Royal Good Fellows; Real Good Mixers, in fact.
Swinging an invitation to a Rotary luncheon was no great trick. My father is a Rotarian, and has been for eleven years. From my perspective, it was a natural progression in an admirable thirty years of hardcore, Grade-A community service, including his stints as a city trustee, alderman, mayor, and now Rotary assistant governor. My father wears duty like a shiny badge, always stopping somewhere far short of True Believer. I keep that in mind for the length of the meeting. Color me slightly biased.
One gets the idea that Rotary’s trappings have changed little over the past eighty years.
The Rotarians gather in the “private” club room of the House of Hughes, a Swiss chalet-style restaurant in lovely Crestwood, Illinois. The House of Hughes is, in suburban vernacular, a “nice” restaurant (i.e., if you are ten years old, Buster Browns are de rigueur). Foody smells waft about—a mixture of seasoned fries, cube steak, and chicken Kiev—stirring up a mental broth of wedding reception memories. Rotary banners line one wall, each covered in turn with smaller banners from clubs across the globe. At center is a large blue and gold pennant bearing Rotary’s symbol (a cogwheel), slogan (“Service … Above Self”), and their quadripartite maxim, the “Four-Way Test.” Thus:
Of the things we think, say or do:
- Is it the Truth?
- Is it Fair to all concerned?
- Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
On a nearby table, a porcupine arrangement of international flags juts from a small display stand. Next to this, a call-to-order bell and a briefcase filled with “Hello, My Name Is … ” buttons (presumably worn by each member, lest anyone has forgotten who they are since last week). The scene is unspectacular, yet a little strange. One gets the idea that Rotary’s trappings have changed little over the past eighty years. They seem less trapped in a time warp than happily nestled in one.
As for the members, they are exactly as you remember them from all those childhood parades, picnics, and pancake breakfasts. Babbitt’s beaming grandsons, gemütlichkeit oozing from their pores, march one by one into the room. Wattles, dewlaps, and bellies—all the protuberances of prosperity—spill forth. Surprisingly, only two members wear suits; the new Rotary uniform apparently consists of a sensible ensemble of golf shirt and comfy slacks. Ties are also few and far between, though one stands out, its pattern a jingoist crazy-quilt of American flags. Backslapping, so reviled by Mencken, is still a Rotarian reflex. Of note is the presence of female Rotarians, who slack not in slapping backs, despite being excluded from the XY-chromosome-dominated club until 1989. My hand is repeatedly and vigorously pumped. One Rotarian asks me, “Didn’t you work for me once?” Yes, I did. It would be stranger if I hadn’t worked high school jobs for half the people here.
My lunchtime table mates, with one exception, are Oak Forest businessmen. On my right is my uncle Jim, an accountant; on my left, Tom the chiropractor. Directly across from me are Paul the optometrist; John, a bus company manager; and Hugh, a retired car dealer. Hugh is a charter member, the club’s oldest, and also the man who tells me, without the slightest taint of irony, that when he sold cars, he felt like he was “selling a piece of the American Dream.” The aforementioned exception is a former Rotary exchange student from Finland named Maya. Four years have passed since Maya was last a club guest. I know this because the hellishly blonde and achingly lithe Maya is approached by one wolf-eyed Rotarian after another, each gibbering, “This is Maya? Four years … I can’t believe it’s been four years. Well, well, well…. ”
At 12:10, all babbling is dispersed by the tolling of the bell. In short order, the entire room stands—twenty Rotarians and three guests—and I am reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time since Boy Scouts. Next, we all gravely bow our heads for the recitation of the Four-Way Test and then an aggressively nonsectarian prayer. Finally, my father introduces my mother and me as club guests. I rise slightly, give my best Queen Elizabeth wave to a chorus of hearty hellos, then sit down again. I regret to report that the much-ridiculed practice of “stunts” has not survived. No one, save the women present, is dressed in women’s clothing. No spitballs are hurled. No balloons are busted beneath Taftian buttocks.
President Rich opens by announcing that on Memorial Day the club will lay a wreath at the Veterans Memorial at the railway station. This is acceptable to the Rotarians, who murmur warm approval. Next on the agenda, Rotarian Andy distributes the new Oak Wheel, the club’s newsletter. Many compliments and “Attaboy’s” are thrown in Andy’s direction, who shows great humility in admitting that he was lucky to have people under him who could make a newsletter. “People who like to use many, many different fonts,” I think to myself as I scan the sheet. The newsletter includes a “tidbits” section, sparkling with this bit of pep:
Rotary District Conference was a success! The club with the highest number in attendance and the highest percent of attendees? OAK FOREST!
As we dine, I ask my dining companions why they joined Rotary. Paul the optometrist answers in a fog-cutting voice. He signed up back in 1977, after a teacher told him that membership was a terrific way to build business contacts. Eventually, Paul decided that contacts weren’t enough; he was more interested in “giving something back to the community.” So, following his father’s recommendation, he joined Rotary; though in hindsight, joining the Lions would have made more sense.
“Why?” John the bus manager asks blankly.
“Well, because of the eye thing,” Paul the optometrist explains.
“Ah,” rejoins John, returning to his lunch.
Paul continues, telling me that he’s hosted several students in the Rotary youth exchange program.
Um, how exactly does that serve the community, I inquire.
“It helps show the [local] kids that all people are the same all over, really,” Paul replies.
Okay, here’s another question: What is “Service,” exactly? I suddenly grow two extra heads, judging by the looks directed at me.
“Well, the motto is ‘Service … Above Self,’” Paul chides.
Check. But what is Service exactly?
To begin with, Mr. Man, I’m informed of the quarterly Blood Drive/Pancake Breakfast—a word combination generating a slew of disturbing mental images. Nevertheless, the Rotarians are said to have collected more than 7,450 pints of fine Oak Forest hemoglobin since 1976. Equally impressive is the ten thousand dollars collected for Rotary International’s Polio Plus program, a project dedicated to nothing less than wiping polio from the face of the earth by Rotary’s centennial in 2005. Oak Forest Rotary has also developed their “Books for Zimbabwe” project, vowing to collect twenty thousand schoolbooks for that country’s supply-poor rural schools. Not earthshaking projects on the level of the United Way, nor flashy contributions to the “tear down the system” method of social reform, I suppose, but nice attempts to make a dent in a weary world.
After an interminable half hour, Chuck wraps it up by remarking how dandy the Web is for small businesses.
On the other hand, is the path to world peace truly paved with pancakes? And why pancakes, fer God’s sake? On the face of it, they lend themselves to high volume and returns at low investment. From a semiotics angle, they’re squishy, boneless things, capable of offending no one. Conversely, what sort of communistic, un-American monster doesn’t like pancakes? After experiencing this momentary thumb wrestling of conscience, I decide that flapjack purveying for the common good is guileless enough. Girl Scouts peddle cookies, Scientologists hawk galvanometers, and Rotarians hold pancake breakfasts. A tradition is a tradition, and a buck is a buck.
The meeting moves on to the featured speaker. Babbitt suffered through the gobbledygook of the American New Thought League. We get the nineties equivalent: Chuck, who will discuss the many, many, many uses of the Internet. Crewcutted Chuck (who I suspect works from his subbasement, to judge by his laserwritten business cards), drones on about “Web sites,” “hits,” “search engines,” and other buzzwords gleaned from back issues of PC World, while competing with tinkling piano and crowd noises trickling in from the main room. Tellingly, young Rotarian John is rapt, while éminence grise Hugh chooses instead to nibble at his seasoned fries.
After an interminable half hour, during which the Rotarians slide down in their chairs like overheated tree sloths, Chuck wraps it up by remarking how dandy the Web is for small businesses.
Suddenly shaken from their collective languor, the re-energized Rotarians bolt up from their seats and out the door in a vote of no-confidence against poor Chuck. Sorry, Chuck, no time to dither; they’ve got buses to manage, eyes to examine, and retirements to savor. Fifteen escaped Rotarians too late, President Rich strikes the bell and announces, “Dismissed.”
Sitting nearby, my father grins.
“Yeah, that ought to do it, Rich,” he gibes.
On May 20, 1998, the Oak Forest Kiwanis Club broke my stony heart. Arriving at noon, again, at the House of Hughes, again, I ask the hostess where the Kiwanians are meeting. Around the corner, I am told, and heading in that direction I enter a large room bursting with golden citizens, each head marked with shades of silver and grey, or liver-spotted skin. One table is a virtual gynogerontocracy, populated by little old ladies noshing upon tuna melts. I make the false assumption that this is the Kiwanis table, and walk toward it until a patch-covered banner catches my eye.
Kiwanis International has 300,000 members. Two of them are sitting at a table against the back wall. House of Hughes house rules decree that a club must have twenty-five members in order to use the “private” room. Rotary has twenty-five; Kiwanis does not, and holds court in the main room instead.
Retiree husband and wife members Chet and Sandy greet me readily, informing me that my contact Ralph—a Rotarian, a Kiwanian, and a Promise Keeper (!) all in one—has yet to arrive. Shortly thereafter Ralph keeps his promise and shows up, offering, to my relief, a firm handshake rather than a manly hug. After him comes Linda, who at thirty-eight is thirty years younger than the next youngest Kiwanian. That makes four. Our greetings out of the way, we sit down and order lunch. I find I have a serious yen for a tuna melt.
So here we are, conducting a meeting for a club that no longer exists in a city it does not represent.
Today’s main order of business is the club’s dissolution. Kiwanis International bylaws stipulate that no club shall fall below twenty members. At their zenith, the Oak Forest Kiwanians had eighteen. Kiwanis let it slide, but now that membership has dwindled to a scant seven, the pressure is on. Death, apathy, and plain and simple lapsing have struck hard. Chet tells me that one very active member died recently, another moved, and two others have risen to positions in state government. The remainder are content to leave membership to check-writing duty. Although a passionate core remains in Oak Forest, Kiwanis International is putting the screws on the club to close shop. Before my eyes they do just that. Ralph reads off the few mail-in votes, all two in favor of disbanding. Chet, Sandy, Ralph, and Linda give their votes as well, and with Band-Aid removal quickness, it’s over.
If the Oak Forest Kiwanians are disbanding, it’s not for lack of trying. The usual potential membership hives were approached: city hall, the police and fire departments, the library—all reacting with a fervor usually reserved for laundry day. Attempts were made at hometown boosterism by holding meetings solely at Oak Forest eateries, including the New Horizon, Chin’s, and the swanky Oak Forest Buffet. “We were most successful when we met there,” Chet wistfully recalls. “We had our own room.” Finally, they settled on the House of Hughes, regrettably located in Crestwood, a suburb that manages to be even more nondescript than Oak Forest. So here we are, conducting a meeting for a club that no longer exists in a city it does not represent. Not exactly Kafka, but a wee bit bleak.
With nothing else to do but talk, I ask the usual questions, starting with what do … sorry, what did you do exactly? For their smallish size and brief tenure, the Kiwanians did quite a bit.
Following the Kiwanis International party line, the Oak Forest Kiwanians made “Young Children: Priority One.” “If the Lions were for glasses, Kiwanis is for young children between the ages of one and five,” Chet explains. Yes, yet another extremely safe and utterly unimpeachable goal. Well, not everyone sees distributing hypo needles and condoms as the best solutions, I guess.
As Rotary annexed polio, so Kiwanis adopted IDD (iodine deficiency disorder) as their disease of choice. IDD is just another archaic medical condition in our hemisphere, owing to our ingestion of iodized salt. Regrettably, IDD continues to expand goiters and induce mental and physical retardation in poor children worldwide. Kiwanis International is going Rotary one better by vowing to wipe out their disease before A.D. 2000. Oak Forest Kiwanis Club fought the good fight, and collected from $1,200 to $1,800 for IDD over the past six years. They’ve also raised funds for local school reading programs; “Together We Cope,” a charity providing needy folks with food, clothing, and whatnot; and the Crippled Children’s Camp in Plymouth, Indiana.
I heard it right: Crippled Children’s Camp. How utterly Dickensian. Of course it’s a “Crippled Children’s Camp”; “Camp Gimpy” would be inappropriate. A decision is made to donate the remainder of the club’s funds to the camp.
If you’re wondering where all the money comes from, it boils down to two carbohydrate-laden staples: peanuts and spaghetti. By way of explanation, it’s really only the fourth Friday of September when Kiwanians prowl the streets, hawking tiny bags of peanuts, not every damn time you turn around. Another popular fund-raiser was the annual Candlelight Bowl, where participants binged on a “nice dinner,” then bowled a couple of frames. Kindly don’t laugh. This is the extent of Oak Forest nightlife. Besides, upwards of ninety people showed up, raising more than one thousand dollars for IDD, crippled children, and the like.
I ask my other big question: With such impeccable credentials, why aren’t more people donning the Kiwanis garrison cap?
Quietly outspoken Chet minces no words: “These are aging clubs.” Ralph, Sandy, and Linda nod in sad agreement, also pointing out that time, or the lack thereof, remains the biggest obstacle. Most suburban retirees these days are too busy enjoying their golden years, traveling and so forth, while younger people are raising families, with Dad playing a bigger role in bringing up the kids. Second careers are becoming the norm in places like Oak Forest, and while many would like to help out, according to Linda, “It’s faster to hand over a check than to give up your time.”
Despite all my ingrained cynicism, I believe them. The world, however, remains unimpressed.
Members of the “Bowling Alone” hysteria club may see Robert Putnam’s dreaded decay of civic engagement in the club’s apparent stagnation. I disagree. The question isn’t one of willingness to serve, but of relevance. The clubs are perceived as being, not to mince words, quaint. Much like today’s grade-schoolers’ choice between joining Boy/Girl Scouts or tae kwon do, when it’s a choice between learning how to tie a sheepshank or splintering boards with your fists, it’s no contest. Another particularly galling coffin nail, according to Chet, is the inexplicable insistence of some clubs on remaining exclusively male, despite Kiwanis International’s bold decision to go coed way back in 1987. Ralph further notes that, once upon a time, Uncle Sam allowed employers a tax deduction when they paid part of an employee’s club dues. Not anymore.
So why did these Kiwanians stick it out? Ralph answers, using a rather embarrassing word. “I’ve always been a joiner,” he says, laying his Babbitt card squarely on the table. “I’ve always believed that if you choose to live in a place, you should want to make it desirable.”
“Some people join thinking, ‘If I join, it should help my business prospects.’ That’s not a good thing,” Chet interjects without a trace of guile. “A sense of altruism should be the best reason.”
Despite all my ingrained cynicism, I believe them. The world, however, remains unimpressed, and the Oak Forest Kiwanis Club disintegrates into good intentions and fairy dust. The meeting ends with the members agreeing to defect to the club in nearby Tinley Park. The dissolution is made manifest when the club’s call-to-order bell is dragged out—a dinged and melancholy thing whose brass Kiwanis logo has snapped off. The Kiwanians are not sure what to do with the threadbare American flag.
“The poor thing’s seen better days, hasn’t it?” Sandy says.
Oh, stop your post-Watergate tittering, you heartless bastards.
The Oak Forest Lions Club is long dead; the Oak Forest Chamber of Commerce tells me so. The only remnant of the club is a rust-spattered sign standing near the city-limit signpost at 143rd and Central. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Lions Club remains the largest of all the clubs, with 1.4 million members and 43,000 clubs across the globe. When one considers what the clubs once were, however, the phrase “That and a quarter … ” suggests itself.
Yet, while the service clubs themselves continue to drift and fragment away from their illusory small town roots, the “International” club corporations behind them plug along, allocating funds to worthy causes, peddling club logo-embossed fountain pens and golf equipment through their catalogs, and seeking out new avenues of boosterism in Third World and former Eastern Bloc countries.
Despite the reader’s expectations, I will not close with a smartassed remark. On the contrary, I laud the clubs for outliving the fashionable sneers leveled at them. I congratulate them for never pretending to be havens for individualism in the first place, and for providing otherwise clueless burghers with a smattering of a sense of civic responsibility. I applaud them for organizing for no grislier purpose than scratching one another’s backs, and occasionally lending an overweening hand to the “poor unfortunates” of the world. Most of all, I praise to the heavens their utter, ineluctable squareness, their refusal to accommodate a younger, hipper audience. Such purity of vision is to be cherished, but whether for its pleasantly ersatz compassion or its bovine complacency, I’ll leave for the reader to decide.