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Belleville Jaycees is still a fun, giving group

Q: I’ve always wondered what happened to the Belleville Jaycees. I know they have a hall and soccer park near the St. Clair County Jail, and they also had an annual Deutschfest for many years. I was a member of the Jaycees back in the ’90s but you never hear about them anymore. Do they still have a chapter in Belleville? And why do they make you leave after you turn 40?

W.H., of Belleville

A: They could use an infusion of young blood, but after nearly a century of work, the Belleville Jaycees — believed to be the second- or third-oldest chapter in the nation — continue to make the city a better place to live.

“We’re still plugging away,” Eian Warma, the group’s current president, told me last week. “Right now I’d say we probably have 20 to 25 members with varying degrees of participation. So we’re always looking to recruit younger members, because I think our youngest members now are in their late 20s.”

You can understand the reason for the age restriction from the group’s very name — the JUNIOR Chamber (of Commerce), which became known as the JCs and Jaycees for short. From its official start in 1920, the idea was to provide younger men (and, after 1984, women) a leadership training ground. Once established, the older members would then have the knowledge and skills to “graduate” from this organization and go on to play a vital role in business and other community organizations. Hence, the current age limits of 18 to 40.

That’s how Warma became involved. About 10 years ago, he was coaching Little Knights football on those fields you so often pass by at 750 W. H St., where the Jaycees acquired 17 acres of land for its hall and soccer fields. While teaching his little gridders, Warma learned of a group that was doing various community projects.

“They needed help for an event, so we did it and really liked it,” he said. “We ended up planning a kickball tournament to raise money to buy school supplies for needy kids in District 201. From there, I just kept getting more and more involved.”

Now, he’s in his second term as the group’s leader, helping it continue its charitable work. Every year, for example, the group raises money through beer sales at Art on the Square. In late September, the group joined in the West Belleville Promotional Group’s food truck fundraiser at Althoff High School to help Nicholas Day, the 9-year-old Swansea boy who survived a stabbing attack in August that left his mother dead.

In the fall and winter, the group uses the money it raises to provide Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners for the needy. The group also rents out its hall to other organizations to help pay the bills and raise additional funds for charity.

“We also offer leadership training events for members, so they can go out into the community and do various things and work with various businesses,” Warma said. “Then, we hold a year-end party for members.”

Mixing work with pleasure was Henry Giessenbier’s goal from the outset. When the St. Louis bank clerk was 22, he was working to perfect his moves at the grizzly beat, tango and fox trot as president of the Herculaneum Dance Club. Then on Oct. 13, 1915, Giessenbier and a couple dozen of his friends turned their attention to civic affairs by forming the Young Men’s Progressive Civic Association, which soon turned into the Junior Citizens.

During those years, most young men were out of school and working by the time they were 15. With perseverance and hard work, some might reach executive positions by their 40s. But Giessenbier believed that these young men were not receiving the opportunities necessary to develop their skills at a younger age. So he figured a group like the one he envisioned would offer those leadership opportunities and hands-on experience through serving the community.

In just two years, the group’s work grabbed the attention of area business, so they became St. Louis Junior Chamber of Commerce. Finally, in 1920, 3,000 members from chapters in 12 cities met in St. Louis to form the National Jaycee organization with Giessenbier as its first president. After battling for its very existence during World War II, the Junior Chamber boomed. Today, there are more than 6,000 clubs with nearly 300,000 members across the country. And, in 1944, the organization went global as Junior Chamber International went on to form a network in 107 free-world countries with 350,000 members.

Belleville hopped on the bandwagon early, according to the Belleville Daily Advocate. On March 22, 1920, the Belleville Junior Chamber of Commerce welcomed 125 members at its first meeting. By September, it was placing directional signs at High Street and Lebanon Avenue to help strangers find their way to Shiloh and Scott Field. Perhaps this initial group fizzled out, however, because on June 30, 1931, another organizational meeting for the local Jaycees was held at the Hotel Belleville. This second try apparently blossomed into the one that would keep the area hopping to the Dutch band music for so many years at the annual Deutschfest, which started in 1973.

Now, Warma, 36, is about to muster out of the organization himself in a very few years, so he is calling on those just trying to get their feet on the ground — ages 18 to 25 — to give the Jaycees a try. For information, call Brian Buehlhorn, the group’s vice president and membership chairman, at 954-1635 or go to the group’s Facebook page. (Their own new website is under construction.) You won’t be disappointed, Warma promises.

“It’s a really friendly group. It’s a lot of fun, and we’re always looking for more people.”

Today’s trivia

Who wrote the Bangles’ first hit song, “Manic Monday”?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: When Russia owned Alaska in the 1700s, its seamen were exploring the 1,200-mile-long chain of islands known as the Aleutians, which stretch southwest of the state. At the point most distant in the chain, they discovered several specks of land that they named the Near Islands, because they were the nearest of the Aleutian Islands to Russia. The United States acquired the islands when it bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, although we had to win them back when Japan occupied them in 1942. Now, according to a recent census, about 50 people live on the islands, which consist of just 440 square miles. Crossword lovers know them because they include Attu, a frequent puzzle answer.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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