Lighting up 60 candles

-A A +A
By Special to the Monitor

Light the candles! The Kiwanis Club of Los Alamos is 60 years old this year.

The celebration is low key, but don’t be surprised if you hear announcements about the anniversary at local pancake breakfasts and the 2008 fireworks show.

Founded in January 1948, Kiwanis is the oldest service organization in Los Alamos. It is affiliated with Kiwanis International, organized in Detroit, Mich., in 1915. Local members follow the Kiwanis International Vision, which states, “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one child and one community at a time.”

Kiwanis has many faces. The public is probably most familiar with Kiwanis as a group that has conducted hundreds of pancake breakfasts over the years. The money all goes for Kiwanis causes.

But Kiwanians don’t just flip pancakes. They staff the firing line each Fourth of July, coming early to position and wire up the shells and staying late to clean up once the fireworks are over.

And they dress up. The annual Kiwanis Auction, a gala affair complete with food and music, is now the club’s number one fundraising project.

A Little History

There are no members left from among the 1948 stalwarts who began Los Alamos Kiwanis, but today’s club has several members who have been active for more than 40 years. Two of them – Steve Stoddard, a former state senator, and Jay Wechsler, a pioneer Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist – shared their memories recently to honor the 60th anniversary.

Stoddard joined Kiwanis June 1, 1957. “I brought Jay in shortly after,” he said.

Stoddard said legend has it that the people who tried to organize the first service club in Los Alamos petitioned Rotary first, but Rotary International “doubted the permanence of the community” and said no. The organizers then talked to Kiwanis International, and it said yes.

Early Kiwanis events were primitive compared to today’s activities.

Stoddard said, “Our first pancake day, we had an array of Coleman stoves. It was outside. We had a line a mile long, and everything was slower than the dickens.”

The pancake breakfasts later moved to the Los Alamos High School cafeteria and finally settled in the current location at the Betty Ehart Senior Center.

Stoddard remembers many summers when he was involved in “Kids’ Day,” once a major annual event run by Kiwanis.

The day featured a Pet Parade around Ashley Pond and a “Mad Hatters’ Tea Party” around the swimming pool at the Los Alamos Inn.

“Kids’ Day then was a big deal,” he said, adding that there were “great moms, great costumes.”

Stoddard remembers the days when almost the entire town turned out to watch Pierotti’s Clowns.

“We played the penitentiary up here” several times, he said. “Bob Porton was the voice of the clowns. He did a marvelous job.”

Porton, who produced the first newspaper in Los Alamos while he worked at the laboratory, was also a radio man – and a Kiwanian. He once served as governor of the entire Southwest District of Kiwanis.

Stoddard recalled the special contributions of many individual Kiwanians.

For instance, when Kiwanis was working on reconditioning Rover Park, “Ted Cole was the spearhead,” he said.

He added that, “Pat Soran was the moving force behind Barranca Park,” and Sunrise Kiwanis sold chances on cars and pickups to raise money for Entry Park.

Also, he said he remembers the good work of Stretch Fretwell and Bob Emigh with Explorer Post 20. Fretwell was a pilot, Stoddard said. “When he didn’t go on the wild river trips, he would fly over in his plane and drop mail to them.”

Another past service was when Kiwanians worked with boys’ groups in Espaola and helping to refurbish the Casa Mesita house.

Additionally, Stoddard contributed to the fireworks show.

“The idea of having a Fourth of July celebration was mine,” Stoddard said. “I went around with Peggy Corbett and got $50 contributions from merchants for the first fireworks show.”

The celebration was expected to be self-sustaining after that, he said. The show was a big success. The volunteers that year included not only Kiwanians, but people from S-Site. “We used to have a speaker and get the high school band to play – like it had been when we were kids,” Stoddard said.

The show was held in front of what is now Los Alamos Middle School.

The Elks took over the fireworks show and ran it for several years, but then it came back to Kiwanis. It was Wally Walters, a Sunrise Kiwanian, who suggested moving the show to Overlook Park in White Rock.

Stoddard also noted that Kiwanis International, which had been founded as a men’s service organization, began taking in women in 1987.

Today, Los Alamos Kiwanis is 50 percent women. Lorraine Hartway was the first female Kiwanis president. Women who have served as president since that time are Emily McGay, Hartway (for another term), Ann Pendergrass, Sandra Landry, Yvonne Deshayes, Linda Daly and Charmian Schaller. Fran Berting was recently elected as second vice president and will serve as president in 2010-2011.

Wechsler also looks back to the early days of Kiwanis. He recalled that at one time, the club met in a building in the area where the Hill Diner stands now. Later, Kiwanis met at the Carriage Inn. Finally, it moved to its current location in the basement of Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church, where it meets for lunch and a speaker (or committee meetings) at noon each Tuesday.

“When I joined the club,” Wechsler said, “I was really impressed that Kiwanis made a point of getting around to other Kiwanis clubs.”

Wechsler recalled that Los Alamos Kiwanians supported Merle Tucker, a professor at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., who became Kiwanis international president.

“Interclubbing (traveling to visit other Kiwanis clubs) was very important then,” Wechsler said, and the division that included Los Alamos was larger. Tucumcari, Farmington and Alamosa, Colo., for example, were in the same division with Los Alamos. Los Alamos is now in Division 3, which also includes Santa Fe, Taos, two clubs in Las Vegas, Espaola, Cimarron and Raton.

“We hit every club in the division several years in a row,” Wechsler said.

Young people dominated Kiwanis – as they dominated Los Alamos – in the early days. “We used to have a party at somebody’s house before we went to the (officer) installation,” Wechsler said. “When I was building this house (which took more than five years), a bunch of that crew would come over, visit, drink beer and help.”

Members ranged from scientists and doctors to business people.

The club drew on the talents of everyone. Wechsler, a renowned engineer-physicist who was known to be good at anything mechanical, actually built the large grills that Kiwanis still uses for outdoor events today.

A Look at the Future

Dennis Gill, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory engineer, is Kiwanis president today. Asked what makes Kiwanis special to him, he said, “Kiwanis is a worldwide organization that allows me to give back to my community. It’s about service ee I especially like the fact that Kiwanis concentrates on kids.”

Gill has been a Kiwanian for about nine years. He joined Sunrise first and then moved over when Sunrise merged with Los Alamos Kiwanis.

Asked what he sees as most important among Kiwanis activities today, Gill said, “The scholarships, the contributions to the many small youth organizations in the community, the anti-suicide bulletins (which Kiwanis prints and distributes in the high school and elsewhere), the sponsorship of Key Club and Builders Club (in Los Alamos Middle School).”

And he noted that even after 60 years, the Los Alamos club is “still very active.” “Remember,” he said, “we sponsor the Fourth of July festivities every year for the community in conjunction with the county,” a massive undertaking in terms of financial and volunteer contributions.

“Sixty years is a long time for an organization to exist,” he said, “especially when each year involves many service projects and depends upon many volunteers. During 60 years, we have touched thousands of young people from this community and helped to build many valuable community assets and institutions. So, as you attend this year’s activities – from pancake breakfasts to auctions – bear with us as we talk about 60 years of service. We’re proud of our history – and we look forward to 60 more years of service.”

He added, “Any of you who feel you would like to give back to your community through Kiwanis, please contact a Kiwanis member. We are open to all people.”