By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

McMinnville Kiwanis Club celebrates 90th

Ninety years ago, on June 25, 1924, Ernie Blair rapped the gavel to convene McMinnville’s first Kiwanis Club meeting. The 49 men who were charter members recited the Pledge of Allegiance, then got down to the business of serving the community.

Today, the McMinnville Kiwanis Club has a membership of about 70 men and women.

Membership, which has fluctuated over the decades, has been growing during recent years. Bob Vertregt said the club has about twice as many members today as it did when he joined in 1996.

Those members will gather Thursday, June 19, for an event in the McMinnville Grand Ballroom to mark the club’s 90th anniversary. Past presidents will be special guests at the dinner.

In 90 years, the group has racked up a long list of accomplishments, but current members aren’t content to rest on their laurels. They are continuing to raise money and use it for scholarships and projects that help the community, particularly its young people.

“Being involved with the various fundraisers and going to our meetings has been the most rewarding part,” said Marlena Ingebo Bertram, who joined Kiwanis in the late 1980s.

She particularly likes helping with the club’s signature fundraiser, the Bids for Kids auction and dinner, which always attracts a capacity crowd of community members.

“I get to see all the supporters when they raise their hands to bid,” she said. “I see them as supporters, not just bidders.”

The parent Kiwanis International organization was founded in Detroit, Mich., in 1915, under the name “Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers.” The next year, members changed the name to “Kiwanis” and chose the motto “We Build.”

A few years ago, the organization picked a new motto, “Serving the Children of the World,” in acknowledgment of its emphasis on youth causes.

Kiwanis caught on quickly. There were more than 1,000 clubs in the U.S. by the early 1920s, when a delegation from Portland came down to help get a club going in McMinnville.

The McMinnville Kiwanis Club soon became known for its service activities.

Members lunched together each week in various restaurants. Former district attorney Jim Craig, a Harvard Law School graduate who joined in 1950 and served as president in 1955, remembers meeting at Hudson’s Cafe on Third Street in the early ’50s.

Later, Kiwanians gathered at the Bayou and Michelbook golf clubs, and in a suite atop the 1893 building. The club recently moved from longtime quarters in the McMinnville Community Center to the McMinnville Grand Ballroom downtown, where it meets at noon Thursdays.

In addition to meeting and serving, the club facilitated creation of other clubs serving Sheridan and Willamina, Dallas, Lincoln City and Newberg. It also spun off a second McMinnville club — Walnut City Kiwanis, which meets on Friday mornings.

Craig, who is still as active as ever, served on the committee that organized the Walnut City launch. When he drops in on one of the club’s meetings, members jokingly call him “Father” or “Daddy,” he said.

The Yamhill County clubs are part of an organization with about 600,000 members in more than 80 countries. And many are women, who have been joining in large numbers since the traditionally all-male club opened its ranks to them in the 1980s.

“If it weren’t for the women, we would not exist,” Craig said. The sentiment was echoed by fellow lawyer  Jerry Hart, who will be taking a second turn at the presidency next year.

Bertram was one of the first females to join. Then heading up the chamber of commerce, she served as the club’s second female president in 1995.

“A few members dropped when they let women in,” she recalled, but the rest “were very accepting.” She quipped, “They could see there was a lot of potential for getting work done.”

For either gender, it’s a great organization to be part of, she said.

From its earliest days, the McMinnville Kiwanis Club has focused on service and community improvement — everything from one-time events to long-term projects.

In the 1920s, members already were pushing for a new courthouse, better city parks and a new auditorium and civic center. And they got results.

The courthouse was replaced in 1964. Parks underwent several waves of improvement. And almost 60 years after the club’s founding, past president Drannan Hamby chaired the effort to turn the old armory into the McMinnville Community Center.

As the decades went by, Kiwanians ran blood drives and “get out the vote” efforts. They encouraged school and church attendance.

They founded health clinics for children, organized safe-driving programs for adults and sponsored a Boy Scout group. In addition, the noon club sponsors a Kiwanis Circle K chapter at Linfield College while the morning club sponsors a Kiwanis Key Club at McMinnville High School.

Kiwanians have bought gifts for needy families at Christmastime, helped Henderson House and Juliette’s House, and awarded hundreds of scholarships — a continuing tradition.

The McMinnville Kiwanis Club purchased the site for the city tennis courts at 12th and Cowls streets, supported summer recreational baseball and other sports leagues. For ye ars, it hosted a National Kids’ Day event and organized the community’s Christmas parade.

The club bought and developed the site for Kiwanis Marine Park. It also purchased and installed play equipment in Wortman Park — and repaired the playground after it was damaged in the 1962 Columbus Day Storm.

The club raised money to do an engineering study for planning the city swimming pool, then campaigned for passage of a bond measure to build the facility. In the very next election, it pushed for passage of the school levy, Craig recalled.

In 1996, Kiwanis members launched a community-wide effort to build the play structure in Upper City Park. Hart, already a Kiwanian, and Nicole Obrist, a future club member, chaired the effort.

Vertregt, who had just moved to McMinnville, volunteered. As he worked side-by-side with Hart and fellow Kiwanian Cal Winbolt, he became interested in the club.

Joining Kiwanis was a perfect way to meet people and get acquainted with his new community, Vertregt said. And it’s been a great way to stay involved.

“I enjoy the camaraderie and the purpose,” he said. “I like the whole concept of Kiwanis. It’s a kid support system.”

To support their service efforts, Kiwanians have raised money in a variety of ways in their 90 years, from barbecuing hamburgers to hosting on a hole-in-one contest to selling cheese. Their “cheese wagon” remains a fixture of the Christmas season from its site on the US Bank Plaza.

For many years, community members flocked to the McMinnville Kiwanis Club’s amateur show. Adults and young people from all over the county showed off their talent and the audience chose the winner.

In 1954, the third-annual amateur show featured Spanish dancers, solo singers and duets, trios and quartets, a scene from “South Pacific,” along with trumpets, trombones, accordions and violins.

Kiwanians themselves starred in some of the shows. In 1929, they donned dresses for a “Womanless Wedding” that had the audience rolling in aisles with laughter. Later, members performed in the popular “Kiwanis Kapers,” showing off talents some didn’t even know they possessed.

Club members have flipped many a pancake, such as for a Turkey Rama breakfast downtown. For years, their breakfasts were a major annual fundraiser — in 1963, for instance, “Pancakes for Kids’ Sake” used 400 pounds of flour, 35 dozen eggs, 350 pounds of sausage and 10 cases of 22-ounce bottles of syrup.

Another activity “for kids’ sake,” the Bids for Kids auction, started in 1980. Colin Gregory, that year’s president, had attended a similar event in Washington and brought the idea home. Held each September, the event now is the club’s biggest fundraiser.

McMinnville Kiwanians say it’s rewarding for them to participate in their club’s fundraisers and service projects. They’re proud of all their group has accomplished.

But the best part of belonging to the club, most say, has been getting to know their fellow members and working with them toward a common goal. Hart noted, “I’ve enjoyed the projects, even the highway clean-up, because I’ve been working with people who have a real positive attitude.”

Hart joined in the late 1980s to become acquainted with fellow McMinnville residents.

He was one of the youngest members at the time. Now, he said, he’s pleased to see another generation of new members infusing energy into the group.

He also values having gotten the chance to get to know longtime members like Jim Ragsdale and Jim Craig. “That’s what’s meant the most to me, the relationships,” Hart said.

Craig also joined the Kiwanis Club as a way to get to know his new community, as well as to be of service.

It was 1950, and the young attorney had just moved to town as an associate of established lawyer and Kiwanian Roy McCurry. They had an office in the old US Bank building, adjacent to the current bank site.

At the time, Kiwanis was still a “classified” service club, meaning membership was limited to just two men of any particular profession. Since the attorney quota was already full, Craig joined as a title examiner, a sideline for him. Today, membership is open to anyone.

Ernie Blair and some of the other original members of the McMinnville Kiwanis were still active in the club when Craig joined. And over the years, he met and became friends with many men from all walks of life as they planned and carried out service projects.

Dentist Don Eastman, for instance, became his climbing partner. Together, they summited the Matterhorn and other peaks.

“The friends are really the primary thing the club has given me,” he said.

Today, Craig is the club’s longest-serving member.

He’s often referred to as the club historian, although that’s not an official title. “I just happen to have the biggest bunch of stuff,” he said, showing off a collection of old programs, organizational charts and rosters.

He said he’s glad he joined.

“Kiwanis and my church, First Baptist, are the primary contacts I’ve had in becoming part of the community,” he said. “They’re what has welded me to the community.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

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