By Milt Huntington
The Augusta Kiwanis Club sprang to life in 1922, but that was before my time. I’ve only been a member for a little more than half a century, but in that fleeting period of 58years, we sure had laughs and memories galore.
Our active Program Committee makes a concerted effort to attract the best possible speakers to swell the Thursday noon attendance. Over the years, we were treated to the presence of every Maine Governor, U.S. Senators, book authors like Gerry Boyle and Linda Greenlaw, Red Sox Catcher Carleton Fish, Cleveland Indians Centerfielder Dave Gallagher, Football Stars and Broadcasters Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, Buffalo Bills Running Back Bruce Laird, N.Y. Yankee Manager Stump Merrill and Red Sox Part-Owner Les Otten.
University of Maine and other college presidents have graced our podium along with Portland and Bangor television personalities. We routinely have music theater stars from The Theater At Monmouth and the Maine Music Theater in Brunswick to give us sneak previews of their upcoming seasons. The late Jud Strunk, who went from a Maine entertainer to a regular on Saturday Night Live was our program for a Kiwanis Ladies Night.
We almost had International Track Star Wilma Rudolph as our guest one time, but she came down with the flu, and we heard from her coach instead. This stirs up a memory I had just as soon forget. When I was Club President in 1965, I somehow managed to engage Miss America, Arizona’s Vonda Kay Van Dyke to appear at a Kiwanis luncheon meeting. The room at the old Augusta House was packed with fellow members and guests. The time came for her appearance and my introduction. She didn’t show. I adlibbed, told jokes and did everything possible to kill time in anticipation of her late arrival.
Some one of my so-called Kiwanis friends sent a note up from the audience, informing me that Miss America had just called to say she was in Hallowell with a flat tire, and would be right along. I adlibbed some more. Time passed. She never showed. The message was a fake. It seems some mix-up in communications between Vonda and her PR person prevented her attendance. To this day, I never hear the end of it. “Need a good program? Have Milt get Miss America,” they love to say.
Still on the subject of programs, the late Bennett Katz, our 1962 Club President, was often a speaker at Kiwanis because of his extensive community involvement and as majority leader of the Maine Senate. Bennett was one of the most glib persons I have ever known, and he was blessed with a terrific sense of humor. He introduced me as a speaker at Kiwanis on a couple of occasions. Once, he said, with all the sincerity he could muster: “I wanted to get the best possible speaker for this occasion.” He took a long look at me, seated beside him, and added: “Unfortunately, he wasn’t available.”
He went on to describe me as one of the most humble people he had ever met—adding that he knew of no one who had more to be humble about. Another time, while introducing me, he stated again with all that syrupy sincerity: “Of all the speakers I have ever introduced, Milt, (Pause), is the most recent.” I got my revenge, however. I was a lobbyist at the State House, and while introducing Senator Katz at Kiwanis, I extolled with equal sincerity: “Bennett Katz is one of the finest legislators I’ve ever owned.”
One other beautiful moment bears repeating. Bennett, whose wife’s name was Edith, walked past my table at a Kiwanis luncheon, and playfully pretended to steal my dessert. “Bennett!” I loudly exclaimed, “You can have my cake or you can have Edith, but you can’t have my cake and Edith, too.” Club members and guests have enjoyed an annual Boothbay Harbor boat trip and lobster bake, an annual joint meeting with Augusta Rotarians and other social events, but basically join Kiwanis to participate in community service. Their principle fund raising event is the annual Kiwanis Charities TV Auction on Time-Warner Cable TV. The two-night affair raises between $ 30,000 and $40,000 and involves nearly every active member in organization, solicitations, auctioneering, manning phones and other Auction Night hands-on responsibilities. Somehow, they always manage to have fun in the process.
The Augusta club boasts something which may be the only institution in Kiwanis International—a Past Presidents Club. Once a year, all but a handful of the living 37 former presidents gather in the interest of pure fellowship. No serious business is discussed, but they do contribute generously each year to the Kiwanis Scholarship Foundation which benefits area college-bound students.
The late Don Tavner, parent club president in 1983, once described the past presidents’ gathering as “riotous behavior and gluttony by the greatest array of has-beens ever assembled.” Another past president commented: “It is the expressed desire of this distinguished group to do nothing and then rest afterward.” Meetings are generally disorderly. Minutes are maintained but are usually read in an atmosphere of total disinterest. The unique collection of has-beens pretty much agree that the Past Presidents Club takes Kiwanis fellowship to a whole other level.
One of my memorable Kiwanis moments includes the time the late Julius Sussman, the 1957 president, walked into a live Kiwanis auction, waved his hand at someone…and bought a cuckoo clock. The late Roy Snowdon, 1956 president, infuriated with an Augusta House luncheon consisting of beans and hotdogs, stormed into the kitchen to complain. He emerged on the run chased by the cook wielding a meat cleaver. Then there was a time when the late Archie Boghosian , long after his prime, when teased about his advancing age, did a very athletic handstand on the back of his chair. The late Dr. Ed th Peaslee came to Kiwanis on his 100 birthday, accepted accolades for his years of Kiwanis service, and then snapped his head around to eye the incumbent president, Rich Abramson and demanded: “Who the Hell are you?”
I’m sure there were countless other moments like those in the Augusta club’s 87 years, but many were before my time, while others are fading away with a memory that is doing the same. The men and women of the Augusta Kiwanis Club have a lot of fun, but they also do a lot of good supporting things like the local food bank, Old Fort Western, Hospice Volunteers, Kennebec Valley YMCA, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Maine’s Children’s Home For Little Wanderers, N.E. Music Camp, Augusta Nature Center, Pine Tree Arboretum, Red Cross, Ronald McDonald House, Salvation and the boy scouts.
The group also sponsors Key Clubs at Cony and Hall-Dale, a college level Circle K Club, and a middle school Builders’ Clubs. Kiwanis provides annual scholarships for area college-bound students, and the group also sponsor summer camperships. Members also participate in Salvation Army bell-ringing at Christmas time, volunteer at the Bread of Life kitchen and take part in the annual Big Brothers-Big Sisters Bowl-For-Kids Sake activity. Other programs they support include the Read Is Fundamental Program in which they read to kids in Augusta’s schools; the Kiwanis Pediatric Trauma Institute in Boston; and the Project to Eliminate Iodine Deficiency.
It sounds like a lot of work, but it most certainly translates to precious memories and a lot of fun.
Milt Huntington is the author of “A Lifetime of Laughter” and “Things That Make You Grin.”