"History is defined in most dictionaries as a systematic record of past events in which man has taken a part. In writing this history of The Meninak Club, I would rather define it as a record of the actions of men that produced an improvement in the quality of life in their community."
-Historian Stuart H. Richeson
HISTORY OF THE MENINAK CLUB OF JACKSONVILLE The year was 1919. A group of twenty nine business and professional men met in the Seminole Hotel for the purpose of organizing a civic club. At the time, Jacksonville was Florida's largest city and boasted of only one such club. South Jacksonville was a separate township with its own mayor and city commission and was connected to its big neighbor by a ferry. There were no bridges except the railroad bridge owned by the Florida East Coast Railroad.
These twenty nine men were a cross section of Jacksonville's leadership: a judge, a doctor, a pharmacist, a dentist, an architect, a printer, a senator, a banker, a ship builder, a mortician, three attorneys and several business executives, all dedicated to improving the spiritual, cultural and social attributes of this city.
On November 14, 1919, this club was chartered as the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville and it became the second club in our city affiliated with an organization national in scope. Walter G. Stedeford a business and civic leader, was elected president; Arthur Y. Milam, a prominent attorney, became vice president and Donald M. Barnett, a banker, became treasurer. Seven of the twenty nine charter members were elected to the board of directors. They were J. S. Porter, owner of Porter Clothing Company, J. T. Shad, president of Underwood Typewriter, Frank Wideman, an attorney, E. H. Bacon, an automobile dealer, J. W. Pettyjohn, president of Covington Wholesale Dry Goods Company, Fred W. Botts, a U. S. District Attorney and James C. Merrill, president of Merrill-Stevens Shipbuilding Company. It is interesting to note that seventy one years later many of the descendants of the original twenty nine charter members are currently members of Meninak.
For the next few years the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville prospered and increased its membership to embrace community leaders in business and the professions. The club became the outstanding civic club in its contribution to underprivileged youth in Jacksonville and Duval County. As a Kiwanis Club, the Jacksonville group took part in the district meetings and national conventions but never lost its enthusiasm for local and charitable projects.
In 1922 the club employed a nineteen year old girl, Gladys Beth Harris, as Executive Secretary. She had exceptional organizational ability and her coordination of the club's many committees contributed in a large part to the eminent position in the community for the next fifty years. She retired in 1972 (now deceased) and in her memory the club established the Gladys Harris Award, given to certain Meninak members whose contribution to the club is outstanding.
By the latter part of the 1920's it became apparent to the club members that to make significant gifts to the underprivileged youth of Jacksonville it was necessary to develop a sound fund raising project and several ideas were explored. Dr. Ernest B. Milam was a delegate to the Kiwanis National convention in Chicago and on his return home by train he met the delegate from the Petersburg, Virginia, club who suggested that both clubs could benefit from a football game between the champion Petersburg High School team and the champion high school in Jacksonville. Dr. Milam, then president, presented the idea to his board of directors. Board members liked the plan but realized that quite an initial outlay of money was required to implement the project. Since the club did not have the money the suggestion was tabled but the basic plan remained alive in the minds of many members.
Dr. Milam was succeeded in the presidency by George Parkhill, the self appointed poet laureate of the club. One of his many poems expresses succinctly the feeling that has always permeated club members:
"It's a band of men worthwhile Fostering the underprivileged child
Imparting to them the ways of life Shunning evil, avoiding strife"
Then in 1932 Finley Tucker became president. On his board of directors was Robert M. Smith, President of the Southern Division of The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, commonly known as A & P, then the largest grocery chain in the world. Bob Smith advised the board that he would personally underwrite any financial loss the club might incur in scheduling the football game. Bob Smith was a genuine "Man in Action" and so the annual charity football game became a reality in 1932 and continued for the next 55 years!
In 1934 Alfred Miller, Sr., a past president and charter member of the club became aware of the need to recognize the outstanding service rendered to the community by the Red Cross Volunteer Life Guards at Jacksonville Beach. With the able assistance of Dr. George Frederick Oetjen who joined the club that year the Annual Ocean Marathon Swim was inaugurated; a three mile exhausting race in the rough Atlantic waters from the Life Guard station at Jacksonville Beach to the then existing pier at Atlantic Beach. A prize trophy was awarded the winning life guard and refreshments served to all hands. This Red Cross Volunteer Life Guard group continues to participate each year in the Meninak Marathon Ocean Swim and they are the only organized volunteer group in the United States at the present time.
The club continued on through the 1930's seeking its members from the business and professional community; men who were leaders in their field and who had demonstrated by their volunteerism a desire to make Jacksonville a better place to live.
In the early 1940's World War ll called many members to the armed forces. The roster during those years gave special recognition to the club's military service members, while those who remained in Jacksonville were leaders in such organizations as the Community War Chest (now the United Way), Civil Defense, the USO, the Red Cross and the various government ration boards. At the war's end the military members returned to the club and an expansion in membership took place. The club continued in dedication to the principle that quantity in membership would never come at the expense of quality and that there was no substitute for one central club in a community.
Unfortunately at the point in time of the late nineteen forties the viewpoint of Kiwanis International did not coincide with the views of the Jacksonville Kiwanis Club. While the local club was adamant in the view of one club to a community its members were quite cooperative in sponsoring clubs in other communities and assisted greatly in the establishment of the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville Beach.
This was not sufficient in the opinion of Kiwanis International which demanded the establishment of a second club in Jacksonville. Under extreme pressure from International the local Kiwanis club began a study of the need, if any, for an additional club in the same city. International was most insistent that a southside Kiwanis Club should be established. While the local club had seen the prestige of other civic clubs eroded by additional clubs, the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville was firm in its view that we had one city and that the river did not divide the community. The many bridges that crossed the river had brought to an end the City of South Jacksonville and there was only one community. Through 1948 and 1949 the club attempted to settle the difference of opinion with Kiwanis International but the effort fell on deaf ears. There was a growing feeling among the membership that the club should resign from Kiwanis International!
However, in early 1950 Dr. John F. Lovejoy, Sr., then president, in an effort to restore harmony appointed a committee to see if it could secure twenty five business and professional men of leadership quality who would be interested in forming a Southside Kiwanis Club. To the amazement of the Kiwanis Club of Jacksonville it was discovered that the District Governor from Live Oak had surreptitiously recruited members for a southside club and accepted their dues. Kiwanis International then presented those newly recruited names to the Jacksonville club for its approval, thus violating its own requirements for membership. International even suggested that the Jacksonville club should return the dues to any prospective member not approved. The local club was completely unwilling to pass or reject men in its own community who had not been proposed by its own membership. Near the end of 1950 President Lovejoy called into session his board of directors and all of the past presidents. The group was unanimous in the opinion that the club should withdraw from Kiwanis International and that a civic club had the moral obligation to control its own destiny. A resolution of withdrawal was presented to the membership and passed with the support of all members save one.
Thus the Meninak Club of Jacksonville was born and in January 1951 Edwin Mugford, a hotel executive, was installed as president. The new club was determined to continue its eminence in the civic, cultural and social life of the city and selected the name "Meninak" from several names suggested. While the name had its origin in the combination of two Greek words meaning "true" and "honorable" the basic thought behind the selection was "Men in Action."
The club immediately began its expansion as a single, independent club comprised of community leaders. Past president Stuart Richeson was instructed to write the club's creed which in essence expresses the feeling of all Meninaks in its final paragraph: "I believe in rendering an active, intelligent, helpful service to my associates, that my community may be a better place for my tenancy in it." However, the club was also involved in its Charity Football Game, actually the oldest bowl game in the United States. There was some legal involvement in the transfer of football funds to Meninak so that formal withdrawal from Kiwanis did not take place until late 1951.
So successful was the Meninak Club of Jacksonville that many of its members felt that additional clubs should be established in other cities but only with a minimum of direction and supervision from the Jacksonville club, so that the new club was assured of independence. The result was the organization of Meninak National! It came into being with the avowed purpose "To enhance the spiritual values of the lives of our members and to promote such values in the community in which we live." Also "To achieve the ideal of service to underprivileged children, to youth, to the aged and handicapped and to others deserving of our interest and aid." In 1953 the first election of Meninak National was held and the officers named were: Burdette Garrison, president; Charles E. Moorman, vice president, Edwin Mugford, secretary and William R. Barnett, treasurer.
Initially all went well. A fine club was organized in Atlanta and chartered on November 30, 1953 at the Peacock Alley Restaurant in Atlanta. This gave rise to a fun group in Meninak known as the "Pig Alley Club" (a rather loose derivation of Place Pigalle in Paris) to which any Meninak could belong and wear a maroon beret, providing he had attended the induction ceremonies of a new club. Subsequently additional clubs were chartered in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. There was some talk of establishing a club in Havanna, Cuba comprised of medical friends of Dr. Lovejoy in that city. Had that avenue been explored the world might have been spared Fidel Castro!
In 1957 Meninak National, under the leadership of President Ira Koger, decided to publish a monthly magazine for the amalgamated clubs and so the first issue which was named "The Menometer" came into being. Stuart Richeson was named editor, George Ellis production manager and Gladys Harris secretary. In the first issue Ira Koger stated: "It is our belief that a local club has judgment enough, intelligence enough and initiative enough to run itself for the benefit of its particular community without close supervision and without meddling." This view was held by all in Meninak because of the unfortunate experience with Kiwanis International.
However, Meninak National had no full time paid employees and that Meninak Club of Jacksonville could not fund development on a regional basis. Past president Fred Cobb had just sold his very successful bottling business and upon temporary retirement he volunteered to assist the newly formed clubs on a non compensated basis. He did all that he could to make the affiliated Meninak clubs more than just a luncheon club, suggesting charitable projects, expanding membership and forming working committees. The new clubs survived for several years. But lack of funding and lack of full time executive supervisional staff took their toll and the venture into the national field came to an end.
Meanwhile the Meninak Club of Jacksonville continued to grow in membership and esteem in the community. In 1955 there came to Jacksonville a songwriter named J. Fred Coots. He had written several musical hits, among them such popular songs as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"; "Love Letters in the Sand"; "You go to my Head" and many others. On his brief visit to Jacksonville Mr. Coots required surgery which was performed by past president Dr. F. Gordon King. So grateful was Fred Coots for his successful operation that he composed the club's marching song: "The Men in Meninak." Writing both words and music he dedicated the song: "To my good friend Dr. F. Gordon King and to the men in Meninak." Past president Van Etten Bent extended honorary membership in Meninak to Fred Coots and introduced the song to the Meninak National convention in Tampa!
The Meninak Club of Jacksonville in its membership classification is a cross section of outstanding leadership in its community: Architects, Accountants, Bankers, Business Executives, Clergy, Military, Physicians, Educators and Judges. Among the Past Presidents are men of diverse faiths, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. While there is no religious requirement for membership in the club the organization is strong in its faith in God and firm in its love of country. Each meeting begins with an invocation to the Almighty and concludes with rendition of our national anthem the "Star Spangled Banner." And since 1955 the members sing the "Meninak Marching Song" at each meeting.
In late 1990, the members recognized the important contribution made by women in the business, professional and cultural life of our community and extended our membership to include women outstanding in their community achievements.
Unique too are the club's gifts to the community to the less fortunate among our citizens. The Meninak Charity Selection Committee has approved both major and minor projects too numerous to specify here and they cover a wide span of human needs. To mention just a few:
Pine Castle Center, Classroom building; Boy Scouts, Central lodge and dining room; Girl Scouts, Meninak kitchen, lodges, dining room renovation; Young Life, Inner city counselling service; Good Will Industries, Sewing machines and equipment for handicapped; Riverside Hospital, The newborn nursery; St. Vincent's Medical Center, Construction & equipment for Well Baby Clinic; Baptist Medical Center, Cost & equipment of infant nursery; St. Luke's Hospital, Equipment for children's ward; Hope Haven Hospital, Meninak boy's ward; Baptist Children's home, Meninak House of Friendship; Y.M.C.A., Craft room at Central Branch; dining room at Keystone Heights, Swimming pool at Opportunity Branch; Salvation Army, Meninak recreation hall at camp; Big Brothers, 2700 square foot dormitory; Childrens Home Society, Recreation building; Police Athletic League, Multipurpose recreational courts; Red Cross Life Saving Station, Renovation of the entire building.
The enthusiasm of Meninak members has resulted in yearly charity projects that have enhanced the quality of life in Jacksonville and those projects all filled a need not covered by any other agency. During the term of office of every one of our presidents, some good has accrued to our community. The club's roster reads like a "Who's Who" of Jacksonville but with it all the club members have had some fun. At one meeting held at the Baptist Home for Children, Meninak presented three large milk cows and they were hand milked by three Meninaks to the joy of the children and the media. The three: a doctor, a banker and a credit manager! For many years the club sponsored two social functions: "Ladies Night" and the "Toy Ball" at which Christmas toys were given by each member to the Salvation Army for distribution to needy children. To this day Meninak members man the Army's Christmas kettles and ring the bells! Recently the "Ladies Night" has been replaced with the annual Meninak-Rotary Golf Tournament and the high scoring club makes a gift to the winning club. The "Toy Ball" has been replaced with the "President's Ball."
The Annual Charity Bowl Game was finally discontinued in 1988 for several reasons. Originally and for several ensuing years the game was played by a champion high school, usually from New England, against a champion school in the Jacksonville area. The game brought widespread support and attendance and attracted football fans from the north. This was due in no small part to the fine cooperation of Fred Foy, Sports Editor of the Boston Herald-Traveller. However as the years went by many new high schools were opened in Duval County and the public interest dwindled in post season high school football. Also the football coach's association did not look with favor on post season bowl games and only tolerated the Meninak Bowl because of its tradition.
The "Excellence in Academics Program" allows Meninak to continue its relationship with the youth in the Duval County school system by trading its support for athletics to academics. The program is designed to promote, support, and reward scholarship in our school system. The Meninak Leadership Grants are college scholarships awarded to area high school seniors who have proven leadership skills. Winners are chosen from participants in Youth Leadership Jacksonville, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing leadership potential in high school students throughout Northeast Florida. Since 1997, five recipients each year have been awarded grants of $5,000 each.
In 1997 the Meninak Foundation established gift categories for annual donations. The 1951 Club is for a donation of $500 and members are recognized by a ruby Meninak pin, Path Lighters Club members receive a sapphire pin for donations of $1,500 and the Torch Club is for donations of $5,000 or more and is designated by a diamond pin. Members may choose to make larger donations to the Foundation through major gifts in the amount of $125,000 or more to endow an annual college scholarship that may be memorialized in their name for perpetuity.
Meeting every week, the men and women of Meninak look forward to the fellowship and camaraderie generated by the close association and common interests of its members. Throughout the years, Meninak continues its objective to develop enduring friendships through mutual understanding, esteem, and good fellowship and holds fast to its creed: "I believe that service to youth is insurance for the preservation of democracy."