The Noon Optimist Club of Marshall met online Wednesday, Aug. 13 with President Le Ila Dixon asking: Remember the grocery stores aisles emptied of toilet paper and other staples when the pandemic began? Nurse Stacy Mason recalls her fellow workers finishing up long shifts caring for the sick, only to find the sundries they needed for their families gone. The Virginia mother-of-two had an idea: start a pantry in her ICU where staff could share extras they had with colleagues. It took off and she expanded the concept to the whole of Mary Washington Healthcare. For her brilliant idea, she was recognized as a Hometown Hero of Fauquier County!
On this day in 1909, Ford Company builds its first Model T and in October it goes into mass production for the middle class American. Also, on this day in 1981, IBM introduces its first personal computer. And, finally, we take note of Optimist Isabel Martinez’s birthday on the 16th. Happy birthday Isabel!
Richard Magrill continues his stories of Optimists past.
In 1987, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. writes a decision ordering Rotary International to reinstate a California club that has admitted women. He holds that “by opening membership to leading business and professional women in the community, Rotary Clubs are likely to obtain a more representative cross-section of community leaders with a broadened capacity for service.” That same reasoning might have been used to order the admission of African-American men to America’s service clubs, but they were kept from membership not by national organization rules but by local customs.
In truth, the official Constitution of Optimist International never countenanced exclusion based on race, creed, or national origin and members of varied ethnic and religious backgrounds are included throughout most of its history. However, this was not so in the South, where it had the strongest clubs, most of which had unwritten policies prohibiting African-Americans or other minorities from joining.
Southern practice became controversial in the national organization in 1963. Then president, John M. Garland, Jr., a Texan, stirs up controversy when he says minorities cannot make up the original charter members of a local club. They must wait to be admitted by the group once organized. Challenged on the floor of the convention, he doubles down and says that rather than taking a stand against racism, “Optimists should take a stand against government incursion into fields long dominated by service clubs.”
Sectional anger flares up, and a New York delegate objects that “we don’t cater to one section of the United States, and it should not be one section that dictates policies.” A couple of years late, the international body rules that every club has voluntarily bound itself to follow the Constitution of Optimist International, which calls for memberhip to “represent a cross-section of the business, social and cultural life of the community.” As a result, black men are officially welcome but not women. Even so, it is twelve long years later in 1982 that in Marshall Ken Alford becomes the club’s first African-American member. (In 1987-88, he also serves as president.)
However, it is worth noting that in 1969, the year before the final integration of schools in Marshall, the club recognizes Marvin E. Washington as its November Boy of the Month. (He will later be an Optimist Young Texan and the salutatorian of his MHS Senior class.)
Coincidentally, it is in 1987 when Alford joins, that Optimists finally address their relation to women. The year before, the vote to welcome women was approved by 61%, just short of the two-thirds needed. In February 1987, Kiwanis International appeals a court decision ruling that their clubs cannot exclude women, while the same year Rotary International rejects women members for the fifth time. The Chicago Tribune, in July 1986, had accused the Lions, Rotarians and Kiwanis of “a lack of class” for voting “to keep women out of their organizations.” All those organizations are in fact engaged in litigation with local clubs who have jumped the gun and already admit women.
Getting ahead of the curve on this issue and notwithstanding the constitution, the Board of Directors of Optimist International votes unanimously on May 11, 1987 to admit women as members. On June 19, 1987, the 69th anniversary of Optimist International, they announce that women are welcome as members.
It remained, however, for the 1987 Montreal convention to fix the technicality and amend the constitution. Some 5,200 Optimists gather in the largest convention in Optimist International history. But the opposition succeeds, just barely, in the original ballot vote. However, the next day the convention votes to re-consider the matter, and after further debate, President Les Craft calls for a voice vote rather than another paper ballot. He then declares that the motion to amend the constitution has duly passed and, when several delegates object and demand a ballot vote, he overrules their objections and adjourns the business session. Women can now become Optimists!
Five years later in Marshall, four women join, and in 1995, Shirley Dahl, is elected president. Through 2020, the club has been served by women presidents ten times. Lenora Reed served as president for the 2012-13 club year and became the first African-American woman to bless the club with her energetic leadership. (Sadly she died on January 1, 2019.) Happily, the Marshall club truly has been blessed, as Justice Powell predicted, with a broadened capacity for service.
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