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History retold

Jack Brockley | Dec 03, 2019

Left to right: Kiwanis organizer Allen S. Browne, first employee O. Sam Cummings, first member Joseph Prance.

“Lowering clouds drifted darkly over the streets of Detroit that December morning. A thin mist, blowing in from across Lake Erie, filled the air with a cold dampness that streaked the panes of the store windows, many of which already were gay with ribbons and tinsel heralding the approach of Christmas.”

That’s the way O. Sam Cummings (above, center) described conditions on December 7, 1914, when Allen Simpson Browne walked through the door of Joseph Prance’s tailor shop and launched a movement that exists today as Kiwanis. Cummings, who was the organization’s first employee — 1918-21 Kiwanis International secretary — wrote but never published a history of the organization in 1952.

A bound copy of his typewritten pages has been discovered, and its pages reveal some interesting details about Kiwanis and the people who found it.

1: Kiwanis was founded by a couple young men. Both organizer Browne (left) and first member Prance (right) were in their 30s on that momentous day.

2: It’s well known that the organization began with the name Benevolent Order Brothers — or BOB — and that some founders did not care to be called Bobs. A new name, Kiwanis, was unanimously accepted, but members were uncertain about how to call themselves. “Kee-wah-ni-ser” and “Kai-wan-is-ser” were suggested.  In May 1917, Kiwanis International President George F. Hixson settled the debate, proclaiming, “Kee-wah nee an” as the correct pronunciation of Kiwanian.

3: First club president Donald Johnston realized the importance of social activities to promote fellowship and camaraderie. The insurance salesman organized square dances, at which he acted as the caller and shouted himself hoarse on more than one occasion.

4: These days, the Kiwanis name may be confused with the Australian airlines Qantas. But in those early days, it apparently competed with cornflakes and make-up. One night, at a London, Ontario, curling club, a prominent lawyer of the town remarked, “When I first heard of Kiwanis, I thought it must be some sort of new breakfast cereal or maybe a new brand of face powder.”

5. Kiwanis’ second club, Cleveland, Ohio, soon developed a keen interest in a hospital for patients suffering from spinal problems, especially bedridden children. The Kiwanians sent to England for a woman experienced in teaching such children and raised funds to establish a training school for young women interested in taking up that kind of service.

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