Sunday, November 18, 2012 | Categories: Michael's Essays
It was the bane of every small-town reporter's existence - covering the local service club luncheon.
Once a month, trotting over to the town's only good restaurant, to report on the speaker invited by the service club to entertain the all-male membership.
The dreariness was compounded by the hunger; the reporter was never
invited to partake of the chicken wings or baked ham and string beans or
the boiled haddock.
In the country town where I worked for the weekly paper, the service club was an important part of the cultural life of local businessmen.
Civic boosterism was its lifeblood and good works its mission - toy drives, summer camp for poor kids, hot meals for seniors, blood donor clinics.
The typical small town service club member was a local businessman who perhaps started out with very little but was now quite comfortable.
The image was that of George F. Babbitt, of Sinclair Lewis's eponymously entitled novel of 1922.
The clubs and the memberships were pretty much the same; whether Lions, Rotarians, Kinsmen, Kiwanis, the Shriners.
The Lions, I remember had a ritual called the TailTwister, where somebody rang a bell and there was a lot of laughter.
The only meeting of one of the clubs I can recall was when the Kinsmen invited a homicide detective from the big city to talk about his job of solving grisly murders.
The cop thoughtfully brought along a
selection of photographs of his work; bodies found in trunks, charred
torsos with limbs missing, mangled corpses in various stages of repose.
One or two of the members had to excuse themselves in a rush for the men's room.
I hadn't given service clubs a thought in four decades until I read an excellent piece by the Toronto Star's excellent columnist, Carol Goar.
Things, service club-wise, have changed a lot over time. No longer are they the rural equivalent of a gentlemen's club. No longer is their main concern refurbishing the curling rink. According to Ms. Goar, there is a whole new model in play.
Specifically, she writes, service clubs
are deeply involved in helping to solve the problems of big cities, by
contributing money---lots of it.
She writes about the Rotary Club of Toronto. It has 250 members and this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.
It is marking the occasion by donating a million dollars to charitable agencies. Every month it gives away another $100,000.
Part of the money, as she explains, goes to the huge social housing complex known as St. Jamestown.
It is in the belly of downtown Toronto and is the most densely populated area in Canada with something like 28,000 people.
The money will go to a community health clinic serving the impoverished residents.
Other grants will go to establishing a hospice care centre for children and scholarships for kids who are good students but don't have any money.
The Lions Club finances a guide dog training school. Other clubs work with disabled children and adults with dementia.
And as Carol Goar notes, service club members still sing the national anthem as if they mean it and hold a huge Christmas party every year for disabled children.
Yes, it all sounds cornball, an eruption of do-goodism.
But unlike our American cousins who treasure individualism, Canadians have an innate sense of community building, of working together to improve things.All the Lions and Rotarians and Shriners and all the rest are living exemplars of that instinct.