On Dec. 6, 1941, the night before Pearl Harbor, some of the most powerful professional women in the area joined together at the Evergreen Hotel downtown to form a new club: the Soroptimist International of Vancouver.
On May 17, 69 years later, members of SI Vancouver voted to disband — and to distribute $175,000 in final gifts to seven community agencies that will continue making Southwest Washington a better place for women and girls.
They are: Clark College Foundation (for women head-of-household scholarships), $30,000; YWCA Foundation, $40,000; Empower Up (computer and technology recycling and education), $20,000; Learning Avenues (formerly East Evergreen) Child Care Centers, $20,000; Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, $20,000; Arthur D. Curtis Children’s Justice Center, $25,000; YWCA SafeChoice (domestic violence) program, $10,000. Plus, there was a $5,000 donation to a sister Soroptimist club in Kyoto, Japan.
“There were some heartfelt feelings about those final dollars,” said past president Marjorie Akers.
Several more Soroptimist organizations remain active locally, and many of the women in the original club have transferred their allegiance to one or another of those.
Past president Jean Lacey, for example, is headed for a Portland club. At age 97 she has no intention of slowing down, and said she’s disappointed that the group she’s loved since signing up in the early 1960s is closing down. She doesn’t like the way electronics have taken over what used to be a face-to-face world, she said.
“When people work together, they stay together,” she said. “We didn’t.”
Her pal Akers has a different view: “I think everything has a time, and now our time is done.”
What a time it was, though: Soroptimist International of Vancouver got busy selling war bonds two days after being chartered. The club was meeting at the disused Grant House on Officers Row and got the idea that a historical museum would be perfect for such a historic home. It shouldered all expenses, opened its own volunteer-run museum in 1952 and kept it going until 1983, when Grant House was taken over by the newly formed Heritage Trust. Eventually all the artifacts and exhibits first amassed by the Soroptimists wound up at the Clark County Historical Museum, and Grant House became a series of restaurants.
“We brought a fair amount of traffic to Officers Row when nothing else was happening there,” Lacey said. “It was a heartbreaker to lose it.”
Soroptimist and retired city councilwoman Pat Jollota, a leading local historian, hated losing the place too — and credited that fight with pulling her into local politics. “I always say, they turned the Grant House into a restaurant and me into a politician,” she told The Columbian in 2009.
(In 1997 this newspaper mourned on its editorial page: “Grant House used to be a pretty fair little museum, run by Soroptimist volunteers. Shoving the restaurant in booted the Soroptimists out. But a long parade of restaurateurs hasn’t made the place the great success our enthusiasm suggested it should be.” Today’s Grant House restaurant has been operated by the same family for the past seven years.)
Philanthropy — funding everything from women’s scholarships to children’s library books — has always been a mainstay of Soroptimists, and in order to raise money numerous events were held, including an annual Election Day stew dinner.
“Everything in that stew dinner had to be homemade,” said Lacey. “It was so popular, people bought tickets at one year’s dinner for the next year’s dinner.”
But the biggest moneymaker SI Vancouver ever had was bingo. In the early 1990s, an east Portland club rented a large warehouse as a permanent bingo parlor and invited other clubs to join a regular rotation. It would be a continual source of revenue, Lacey said, though not everyone was thrilled with the idea.
“Bingo carries a certain connotation,” Akers said.
“Some said we were going to go to hell and damnation from gambling, but I’m going anyway,” said Lacey.
The club went ahead, and five women agreed to invest $2,000 in the venture, figuring it would take them years to make their money back. It took only a few months.
“No one could have been more than surprised than us, how much money we could make,” Lacey said. “It was our cash cow.”
And it all went to charity, Akers said. “If you sat down and tabulated everything we gave, it would be more than $1 million.” The largest single donation in the club’s history was $50,000 for the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington in 2000.
These days, local Soroptimist clubs raise money in numerous ways, including membership dues and by managing estate sales for a fee.
Jollota got involved in SI Vancouver when she was invited to be a guest speaker and give one of her regular community history lessons. She looked around the room and realized how many of Vancouver’s most prominent women were there, and decided to join. Her busy political career took center stage for a while, she said, but she rejoined as her tenure on the Vancouver City Council was ending in 2009.
But in the mid-1990s, the Soroptimists were Jollota’s main ally as she undertook a drive to provide Vancouver firefighters with high-tech thermal imaging helmets that allow them to “see” heat in smoky environments. The helmets cost $25,000 apiece.
“The first ones who jumped on the bandwagon were the Soroptimists,” Jollota said. “And it took fire because they stepped up to it.”
Lacey said SI Vancouver also supported a fire department effort to distribute smoke detectors to people in need. “The first lady to get a smoke detector was in the Rosemere district and when we came to her door she’d had her hair done and this red dress on. I think she was disappointed we were just a bunch of lady Soroptimists,” she said.
The club also backed efforts to establish a sister-city relationship with Joyo, Japan, and sponsored several trips back and forth. The international visitors stayed in one another’s homes and established some lifelong friendships, Lacey said.
Years after Pearl Harbor, Lacey said, she took great satisfaction in helping to “rehabilitate” the international relationship.
Thousands of Soroptimist clubs remain active all over the world, according to Michelle Bart, the incoming president of Soroptimist International Southwest Washington for 2011-2012. There’s also a Soroptimist International Camas/Washougal. These local clubs have taken a lead role in fighting domestic violence and sex and labor trafficking. Bart is a co-founder of the Northwest Coalition Against Trafficking in an ongoing partnership with the YWCA Clark County.
Bart said her main thrust as president will be building club membership by making it more fun. Right now, she said, there are just 21 members of the Southwest Washington chapter — sufficient but not nearly enough, she said.
“Although our organization accepts men, our club is comprised of women who want to make a difference in our community and around the world, and this will continue,” she said.
“I was the only one who voted no on dissolving the club,” Jollota said. “It was such a potent force in our community.”