It was All About the Community’s Children – 66 years of Martinez Exchange Club Keeping Its Pledge -- “Unity In Service”
By Harriett Burt
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series on the seven past and present nationally and internationally affiliated Martinez service clubs and their contributions to the community and to the wider world for more than 80 years. Martinez Exchange Club was an exemplary example of the dedication to service from its establishment here in 1924 until it disbanded in 1991. Martinez Rotary Club will be profiled in the May edition. The series will conclude in July with the Martinez Lioness club, at 57 years, the youngest of the group.)
Somebody’s got to be first. And in eight decades of service club contributions to the welfare and betterment of life for all in the community, Martinez Exchange Club takes that honor. On March 22, 1924, local professional and businessmen E. R. Lasell, Sr., Ralph Wight, A. F. Bray, Sr., local vintner Ed Digardi, Arthur Granshaw, John Beard and Cappy Ricks, were among the prominent citizens to become charter members of the first national service club to be established in this city.
For over 65 years thereafter whether membership was large or small, Exchange Club tirelessly supported children and youth and the men and women who worked in public safety and education. It organized bike rodeos and Easter egg hunts attended by hundreds of youngsters, flipped pancakes for hungry patriots each Fourth of July, sponsored Brownie and Boy Scout troops, supported the American Field Service exchange student program, and passed out food baskets for the needy at Christmas and Thanksgiving using names of deserving families supplied to it by the local Salvation Army coordinator, Leila Bray. And this is just a partial list.
“We did a lot for the community,’ recalls Raul Lomeli, a 25 year member. Exchange Club attracted him because of the people in it. ‘We had an awful close knit group,” he says.
Noralea Stella Gipner, who personified another “first” for Exchange Club in 1986 by becoming the first woman to be inducted into a previously male-only service club in Martinez and possibly nationally, felt the same way. “At the time I was really involved in everything. It’s the one club I ever joined.” Attracted by the service commitment of the group, she lists the active members of the time, Gail Weaner, Phil Haag, Tom Nicholson, Roy Jeans among others as people she really enjoyed working with.
Longtime member and three term president Phil Haag, a local pharmacist for many years, gave much of his spare time to Exchange Club projects. He also kept well organized records and dozens of pictures of members and activities, all of which he has donated to the Martinez Historical Society, making Martinez Exchange Club one of the best documented of all the local service clubs..
Haag, interviewed for an article in the Martinez News-Gazette during the club’s 65th anniversary celebration in 1989, described the club’s mission and motivation.
“Primarily our whole might is leaning toward youth organizations. We’re into ‘Hip, Hip Hooray, Apple Pie and the Grand Old Flag!’”
Proof of that lies in the annual Fourth of July Pancake breakfast prepared and served for many years for the community by hard-working Exchange Club members at the Martinez Junior High or Montecito school cafeterias. Costing $1.50 a plate, the breakfast netted a major portion of the club’s annual service budget. Profits were augmented for many years, Lomeli recalls, by the generosity of local restauranteur Paul Gagnon who succeeded Paul Pagnini as owner of Paul’s Place. Gagnon made and donated the pancake batter to the club.
A number of prominent school administrators and teachers belonged to Exchange Club over the years including principals Virgil Bozarth, Howard Carter and Gale Weaner. Carter made the Montecito School site (now Martinez Adult School) available each year for a big bike rodeo. Youngsters brought their bikes to the playground for safety inspections and licenses. Members of the Martinez Police Department taught classes on safety followed by a chance for the young cyclists to show their two-wheeled prowess through a complicated obstacle course. The winner received a brand new bicycle from Exchange Club. In 1973 the rodeo attracted over 200 riders.
In addition to supporting youth, the club honored those who dedicated their lives to public safety and education. For many years, Exchange Club hosted annual Peace Officers of the Year dinners celebrating the most outstanding members of the Martinez Police Department, the Martinez Fire Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Office as well as outstanding elementary, junior high and high school teachers in the Martinez Unified School District.
As the years passed, other national and international service clubs were chartered in Martinez all dedicated to the betterment of the community and often working together to achieve goals such as the building of the Martinez Swimming Pool and the Camp Fire Building.
In its history, Exchange Club both locally and nationally has reflected some of the major issues of the day. The local club lost many of its attorney and school members in the early 1950s when the national board refused to alter its policies against admitting blacks and women. Thirty years later, the club, both locally and nationally became a pioneer without a Supreme Court decision. At its 1986 convention, Exchange Club changed its national charter to allow admission of women. Martinez Exchange club soon after became the first Martinez men’s service organization to include women in its membership by inducting Gipner well before the court decisions that changed the practice of gender restrictions on service club membership nationally.
But despite that the Martinez Exchange Club closed its doors in 1991 for a simple reason signifying broad changes in the country about club membership and the availability of time in working families. “We couldn’t get new members,” Lomeli said sadly in spite of holding meetings in the evening rather than at lunch and welcoming a broad spectrum of working men and women.
Exchange Club lives on in Martinez, however. One Saturday morning each year just before Easter hundreds of children and their parents will head for Waterfront Park to take part in the annual Easter Egg Hunt – held for over 30 years. When Exchange Club disbanded, members asked Martinez Lions Club to pick up the project. Currently Martinez Kiwanis and Lioness Clubs assist the Lions club keep the popular event alive.
But the record of Exchange Club’s contributions to Martinez is there to see in Phil Haag’s plastic file box -- the names of active members over the years such as Justice Wakefield Taylor, James Jory, Winston Keller, Judge Tom McBride, Dr. Charles Dodge, Virgil Bozarth, Marvin King, C. J. McKinnie, Irv Palmer, Hugh Corum, Richard Bennett, Moe Williams, Carl Groshell, Dave Delehanty, Maxine Goodmacher, Phil Haag, Raul Lomeli, Roy Jeans, and many more who worked hard and enthusiastically to do good for the good of the community.