Lions Clubs International
The Founder Lions Club of San Antonio, Texas
The World's Oldest Lions Club
History of the San Antonio Founder Lions Club 1915-
By: Lion Past President Henry Simms - Historian
Our story begins in 1915 when San Antonio was the largest city in Texas, boasting a population of almost 120,000.
In the fall of that year, Dr. Frederick Terrell, Sam Weller, and other prominent businessmen of that day, gathered together to organized a businessmen's club which would exist for the purpose of developing and furthering the interest of San Antonio, it's businesses and people. Their timing was coincidental and supported an initiative of another gentleman, Mr. E.A. Hicks, formerly a Texan but of late from Indiana, who had come to San Antonio on behalf of an Established National Organization known as the "Royal Order of Lions." Mr. Hicks' express purpose was to foster the creation of Texas Clubs which would affiliate with the Royal Order of Lions. Already successful in El Paso, by September, Mr. Hicks, as the Texas State Director for the Royal Order of Lions, succeeded in his local objective as on the evening of 8 October 1915, the San Antonio Den of the Royal Order of Lions, consisting of 53 members, held it's Charter meeting at the Gunter Hotel and thus, what was to be known for many years thereafter as the San Antonio Lions Club, was born.
Early on, the relationship between the San Antonio Den and the Indiana Headquarters was disrupted upon receipt of the Charter documents for the Royal Order of Lions whereupon it was discovered that the Royal Order was in truth a secretive, "Fraternal" organization, not the "Luncheon Club" style of organization desired by the general membership in San Antonio. Mr. Hicks and his assistants had established Royal Order Dens in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, and virtually all of these clubs, upon receipt of their Charter documents, objected in the strongest ways, staging in effect great upheaval centered predominantly in the South. By 1916, feeling themselves the victims of deception, many receded from the Royal Order organization and others folded.1
Dr. William Perry Woods, a prominent Medical Surgeon in Evansville, Indiana, was the founder of the Royal Order of Lions. By 1911, he had incorporated and formed 54 lodges in various, mostly northern, states. And, although Fraternal and secretive in nature, his "Dens" were to bring about fellowship and goodwill. That, nevertheless, was not enough to keep alive the Royal Order movement in the southern states.
In 1916 and in consultation with Mr. Hicks and others, Dr. Woods responded to the crisis in the South by forming a sister organization that would be comprised of "Luncheon Clubs" and once formed, he would "turn the organization over to them" (the Southern clubs). Thus, on 24 October 1916, the International Association of Lions Clubs was incorporated in Evansville, Vandenberg County, Indiana and in the mind of it's founder, Dr. Woods, all Southern Royal Order Lodges, were considered to still be subordinate lodges and thus, were extended invitations to reorganize into the International Association of Lions Clubs. 2 Originally, Dr. Woods and his co-founders felt that as soon as 50 clubs had formed under the new organization, a charter meeting would be held. However, the critical nature of the problems in the South demanded earlier action so Dr. Woods, in the summer of 1917, sent out invitations to 33 Southern clubs to join him in October of 1917 in Dallas, at the Adolphus Hotel. The San Antonio Club received it's invitation but because of the War effort, was unable to send a representative. It nevertheless elected to support the outcome of the meeting. Dr. Woods, the Founding Father of Lionism, was subsequently elected to be the first President of the International Association at the Dallas Convention and the San Antonio club became a part of the newly incorporated International Association of Lions Clubs. Of all the clubs invited to the Dallas convention, the San Antonio Club had and still has the earliest date of organization as a Lions Club.
Little did the pioneering members of 1915, 1916, and 1917 know that their efforts to hold weekly meetings, recruit new members, maintain fiscal responsibility, and exert a combined influence for the betterment of the community were, in fact, laying the foundation for our club to meet nearly 95 years later.
It is true, our Club did not send a representative to the first convention in Dallas in October, 1917. After all, our country was at war. We had declared war with Germany on April 6, 1917, and for the past six months we had been involved with the war effort. With San Antonio being the military city that it is, you can imagine all the work to be done; recruiting soldiers, gathering food and clothing, assisting the Red Cross by making bandages, organizing relief funds, selling war bonds, and the list goes on. It probably was not practical or possible for us to send a representative to Dallas, but we did send the word that we would go along with whatever the other Lions Clubs of the Woods group gathered there did. We kept that promise. When the Dallas convention adopted SERVICE and LOYALTY as the key theme words in its Code of Ethics, this was nothing new to our Club because we had been promoting and practicing Service and Loyalty since 1915.
The first recorded activity of any Texas Lions Club during the first year after the October 1917 convention was then our San Antonio club sent a telegram to the Fort Worth club, asking their help in the recruitment of citizen-solder candidates for the Leon Springs Officers Training Camp as a patriotic duty in World War I. Incidentally, this camp just outside our city was the first officers training camp in the world.
In 1921 our Club met with the San Antonio Advertising Club and at that meeting, it was decided to take the necessary steps to establish a Better Business Bureau. This Bureau still functions today.
In 1922 we sent our President, William G. Higgins, to the International Convention in Oakland. Higgins presented his idea of forming a Lions Club in Mexico. To assist him in accomplishing this purpose, he was elected Second Vice President of Lions International. Our Club sponsored the first Lions Club in Mexico City, and later a club in Monterrey. For many years the Monterrey club has been the largest in the world. When their membership reached about 1,500, the Club decided to split and form anew club in the city. Today the original club is still the largest in the world with about 1,700 members, and the newly formed Monterrey club is the second largest club in the world with about 1,300 members. In this same year of 1922, we were blessed with a new member by the name of Louis Rodriguez. He became out tailtwister which is often said to be the lowest job in the world. Louis developed it into an art form that brought fame and recognition to him and our Club.
It was in 1923 that our Club raised $10,000 for the development of an athletic field and playground for the youth of San Antonio. The City donated about 10 acres on Broadway at Brackenridge Park. By agreement with the City, we built a club house at a cost of $30,000, fully equipped the playground, and hired John Bradford from the Playground and Recreation Association of America in New York to supervise its construction and operation. Lions Field was the first supervised playground in the United States this side of the Mississippi. It still exists as a playground, thanks to Lions Arthur Biard and J. Andrew Smith, who in late years appeared before our City Council to prevent its sale to private interests.
In those early years as a member of Lions International, our Club played a predominant role in the affairs of the Association. With “Colonel” William G. Higgins as our president for more than seven years, from January 1920 to July 1927, we were active at each annual convention. We provided program entertainment by conducting a grid, or roast as it is now called, of the Association bigwigs which included Melvin Jones. Also, Mary Stewart Edwards, a gifted singer from San Antonio, graced several convention stages, compliments of our Club. It is also recorded that our Club was the first to include the cost of the weekly luncheons with the quarterly dues. Furthermore, our Club was the first to conduct an induction of new members ritual that was said to be “worthy of its name”. In fact, Lions International placed us on the program of the 9th convention in Cedar Point, Iowa, to demonstrate our induction ritual as a model for other clubs to follow. The entire ritual, word-for-word, was published in the August 1925 Lions Magazine. It can be said that the International Association looked to our Club for leadership; and the records will show we responded. It is even recorded that in February 1922, when our President Higgins was on the International Board, he and others on the Board who were less affluent, signed a note at a Chicago bank for $5,000 when funds ran short at the Chicago headquarters of Lions International. William Higgins was nominated for president of Lions International at the 1924 convention in Omaha, but he did not make it. What a shame. We had to wait until 1950 to elect Herb Petry.
By January 1924 we were the largest Lions Club in the world with 215 members. Regardless of the successes our Club enjoyed, the Great Depression brought us to our knees. Our membership dropped to 67 and the Club’s chief activity was collecting dues. The paid secretary was asked to resign, and J. Andrew Smith became the active secretary. He collected dues, made the reports, wrote the bulletin, and printed them with a mimeograph on his kitchen table at home.
With Dr. H. O. Wyneken as Chairman, the club’s Committee for the Blind was responsible for accelerating passage of the first City ordinance to recognize white canes as a symbol of the blind.
– Lion Henry Simms, July 2010
1 It is a fact well documented that the Ku Klux Klan, enticed by the name Royal Order and the secretive/Fraternal nature of the organization, began to infiltrate Royal Order Clubs, Nation Wide. This, according to the founder, Dr. William P. Woods, hastened the downfall of the Royal Order of Lions as a nationwide organization.
2 Per his 1952 Affidavit, Dr. Woods nonetheless considered our club and all other Southern Royal Order Lodges, to have maintained their status as Lodges in the Royal Order organization and to have remained thus until they converted to the International Association.