By Tony Hooker
While service organizations everywhere struggle to maintain memberships, the Villa Grove Lion’s Club continues to maintain a strong presence in our community. The LION’s, which stands for Liberty, Intelligence, Our Nation’s Safety, was founded over 100 years ago and has had a presence in Villa Grove for over 70 years. I recently sat down with two of the catalysts of the VG chapter, President Libby Spannagel and 55-year member Howard Osborne, to discuss the club in detail.
Libby, how long have you been involved in the Lion’s club?
It’s been close to ten years.
How long have you had a leadership position?
LS: <laughs> Thanks to Mr. Osborne! This is my first year as president, I’ve had other roles, membership and that sort of thing.
Mr. Osborne, when did you get involved?
HO: 55 years ago.
You’ve probably served in every role in the club?
Every one of them.
Did you ever aspire to have state or national leadership roles?
HO: No. I didn’t have the desire to do that. You can’t throw yourself completely into everything, and the church has always been most important to me. I’ve been president of the Lion’s twice.
LS: It takes a lot of time to fill those roles. If you had a full-time job, it would be really difficult, with all the traveling that you have to do.
Starting at the beginning, what exactly is the Lion’s club?
HO: It started in 1917 by Melvin Jones, and his idea was to form a service club. In 1921, Helen Keller challenged us to work for the blind, and that’s been our number one. Of course, we’ve gone from helping the blind to buying glasses and hearing aids and helping with diabetes. Those are our three main functions.
As you move forward, it seems like service organizations such as the Lion’s are really taking a hit as far as memberships, but you guys seem to be doing great, and according to someone I spoke to recently, a lot of that has to do with your leadership, Libby. How would you respond to that?
LS: I’m not sure about that. I do believe in the cause. I think that when you have something that’s really close to your heart, it’s easy to put your whole heart into it and I think it’s easy to see that. When my husband joined the Lion’s club, over 25 years ago, our kids were little. He always wanted me to join, but having 4 kids at home, someone had to stay home and make sure the kids got their chores done and got to practice and that sort of thing. I always supported Tim when he would come to the meetings, and I would come to special events, the Christmas and Valentine’s dinners. I’ve always believed in the cause of helping others, and I’ve carried that over to my job as a teacher assistant at Urbana High School, and I see a lot of growth. We were just talking about that today, when you see growth, you feel like you’ve succeeded. When you see growth happen, like we have with our club….If you had told me ten years ago that I would be president, I would have said no! I think with the encouragement of our members, like Tim and Mr. Osborne, that I hope to walk in their shoes because they’ve been great leaders.
Do you think that your true believe in the cause resonates with others so maybe that’s why your club remains strong?
LS: I think it’s loyalty.
HO: That’s a good description. I think our problem is getting those people in their twenties and thirties involved. I was twenty-six when I joined, and young people just don’t seem to have interest in it. Even in church, we don’t have younger folks taking leadership roles. They always seem too busy.
LS: Our kids have always been around things like the pork chop dinner. When they received the Lion’s club scholarships, they knew what it meant to Dad, and they knew all the hard work that went into it and they were very grateful. Right now, our son Quentin is the club secretary. He’s twenty-seven.
I’ve heard that other clubs are going away. Will they be assimilated into the Villa Grove club?
HO: Tolono’s breaking up. Tuscola is on the verge of breaking up.
LS: We don’t know if they’ll come here. We don’t know what that will look like. I do think that loyalty is the key factor for us. Our meetings are a lot of fun. A lot of social time.
How many members do you have?
LS: 20. We have some members who don’t always attend the meeting, but they always seem to be there when we need their help.
Is that number about what it’s been over the course of your 50 years, Mr. Osborne?
HO: No, it’s varied. I remember in the seventies, we would have trouble getting 5 or 6 members. Then, when Jerry Johnson became active, and we had a leader like that, we got up to about 33 members.
Twenty is a nice solid number. Do you foresee that continuing, Libby?
LS: We hope so. My goal is to bring in some more, but the pandemic has really slowed down that process. It’s really hard to say “Hey, would you like to join the Lion’s, but you have to socially distance and you have to wear your mask.” There for a while, we didn’t meet because of the pandemic. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t as young as we used to be. <smiles>
Has the pandemic impacted your ability to do the things that you would normally do?
LS: We did do candy day and that was downtown.
HO: We went to just doing a raffle for the Pork Chop Dinner this year.
LS: It was still successful. Even though we’re living in a pandemic the need hasn’t gone away. People still need glasses. Families need help at Christmas time. The kids still need school supplies. The need is still there, so we still need to find ways to bring revenue into the club. We’re getting closer to normal. I think all of us have had our vaccines. Last week, we met for the first time since November, so we’re getting there.
Do you have any events on the horizon that you would like to talk about?
LS: Most of our events are still in the planning stage.
HO: We’re planning a pork chop drive through on August 28 if the situation is correct.
LS: We’re not going to put anyone, members or the community at risk.
HO: We still have projects. We have a leader dog school, a camp for kids who have sight problems. For years, we had a kid from Villa Grove who we sponsored. It’s kind of expensive. He’s grown now, but we still send money to support the camp.
LS: You have to understand the full picture. Lion’s club is not just Villa Grove. We have an international presence as well and Covid 19 has impacted all of us. Some of the clubs aren’t meeting yet. We’re just starting to get back into the swing of it.
HO: The most active clubs are in India and Japan. It’s a privilege to be a member there, and it’s expensive. You have to apply and they have a waiting list.
LS: It’s pretty prestigious.
It’s always looked like you guys were having fun.
LS: You’re invited to our meeting on May 18!
HO: I wanted to mention that we have a program in place where if someone has an expensive surgery coming up and an individual club can’t afford it, the clubs together have a foundation and they will help us.
Is that only for optical surgery or are other types included?
It’s for hearing. For eyes. We have a sight bus and a hearing bus that we have here at the school.
People can come and get their eyes checked for free, and we give hearing tests to the school kids.
LS: They have someone there to see if they have problems. The Lions will help get kids on the busses and off. Steve Leon is a member, and he’ll be there to look at the tests.
Is there anything you would like to add?
HO: This particular club was chartered in 1949, and the last charter member who was still active was Stick Matteson who was active until he died in 2011 at the age of 95.
LS: Thinking back, we’ve had some wonderful members of the Lion’s club over the years. Footie & Byford and Betty Hancock. Leslie Wolfe. Judge Sherrick. You’re talking about a lot of history here.
That’s what interested me in this story. The history. Who are some other leaders in addition to Mr. Johnson who have stood out in your time here, Mr. Osborne?
HO: Bill Vircks. He was active in the VFW as well. He was really gung ho in the Lions. Bob Sergent.
LS: Villa Grove Lions serve. That’s what we do. We don’t serve each other, we serve others. That includes helping with Christmas and back to school. We’ve got a big project coming up with the Caboose out at Henson.
HO: We used to sell light bulbs and brooms door to door, but the lawn mower raffle has taken the place of all of that.
LS: We meet here (at Monical’s) the first and third Tuesday of every month. It’s good to serve, and it’s good to walk away after seeing how proud a child is when they walk away with a new book bag, and you know that we were part of that.