By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Managing Editor
The Cranbury Lions Club has been quietly working behind the scenes to make the community work since 1932.
Now in its ninth decade, the club’s mission has always been the same — to serve the community locally, regionally and globally through both service and donations. Membership has waxed and waned over the years due to wars, good and bad economic times as well as time itself, which has given and taken Lions’ lives. Despite the size of the core volunteer group, the club has remained steadfast in its mission to help bolster community.
The Cranbury Lions may be known for their festive fundraisers like the annual Poinsettia Sale and the Rubber Duck Race but residents may not know what Lions put the money raised toward. Lions support local students with scholarships, give to the needy and organize annual community events like the Memorial Day Parade. They have purchased books for the library, given land to the township, restored old barns and planted trees throughout town.
From its very beginnings, when in its first year the club adopted The New Jersey Training School for Boys (The Jamesburg School for Boys), to now when Lions host the annual pumpkin caving at Cranbury School, the club has sought to serve. Beautification and tree planting along Main Street were major projects for the Lions through the 1930s. In 1937, the club planted 100 hard maple trees along town streets. That was also the first year the club sponsored the Memorial Day program in town.
The club became a vital moving force in the village in the 1930s. Lions cleaned Brainerd Lake, cared for the trees in town, donated Christmas baskets to needy families, hosted a Christmas decoration contest, continued the Memorial Day program and assisted in providing free lunches to undernourished children. In 1938, the Lions presented the first scholarship to a student in the amount of $250.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Lions took pictures of home and sent them to troops stationed all over the world. They conducted ongoing collections for the war effort, hosted a blood donation program and completed a bathing beach and picnic area along the lake. The club donated money to the township’s War Memorial, brought a mobile X-ray unit to town, purchased eyeglasses for needy Cranbury children, bought high school band uniforms and secured 80 tons of asphalt to pave an outdoor basketball court at Cranbury School. Lions also purchased two swans for the lake. They raised funds for these projects through a turkey auction, broom sales, an annual pancake breakfast, selling potatoes, and raffling off tractors and a TV.
In 1957, the club’s Halloween and Memorial Day parades became established annual events. In 1962, the club became an incorporated entity. In 1965, the Lions donated a 2-acre lot to the township to help create Village Park. Two years later, the club was asked to sponsor the opening of the new post office.
In its fifth decade, the club showed growth in stability and service. In the summer of 1972, the club completed construction of the park pavilion and dedicated it at the town’s 275th anniversary celebration. In 1973, Lions donated the benches for the park. In 1978, the club sponsored the charter for the Cranbury Lioness Club. Near the end of the decade, the club hosted its first chicken barbecue, which became a financially successful event in town. From the barbecue came Cranbury Day (1980), which is an autumn tradition in town to this day.
While many of the club’s traditions continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Lions Club was not without change as it began its second 50 years. Although the club continued its pancake breakfasts and chicken barbecues, it discontinued its turkey suppers in 1987. The spring raffle no longer could afford to raffle off cars. Change even invaded the meeting space as the club moved from Forsgate Country Club to the Village Pump to the Cranbury Inn and to the Coach and Four Restaurant in Hightstown. The meeting spot would continue to change in later years. Today, the club meets in Teddy’s Restaurant downtown.
In 1990, the club inducted its first female member and it ultimately invited all Lionesses to become Lions in 1992. Throughout its seventh decade, the Lions sponsored an exchange student from France, continued a clock auction, donated money to the school for the development of the Community Room, began an annual Trenton Thunder outing, and began the annual Toys for Tots drive.
In 2001, Lions started “Pictures With Santa” during their annual pancake breakfast and created a memorial to Cranbury resident Todd Beamer who perished on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.
Throughout its eighth decade from July 2002 to June 2012, the club started to provide an annual award for community service to a Cranbury youth and installed a new eyeglass collection box in front of Cranbury Library, instituted two new annual scholarships, volunteered to repair historic barns on the Updike property in exchange for storage space and started a Valentine’s Day roses fundraiser and an art auction. In June 2007, the club hosted its 75th anniversary event and donated the proceeds to the Cranbury EMS, local Scouting and camps for blind and disabled children and adults. Although the Lions discontinued the annual Halloween Parade, in October 2007 they started the pumpkin carving event, which still takes place annually at Cranbury School.
Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, Cranbury Lions took over the New Jersey Lions Day at the New Jersey Devils, distributed phone cards to troops overseas and donated money to a family in town who lost their home to a fire. The club also conducted a coat drive, held its first annual Gil & Bert’s Ice Cream fundraiser and helped with a Habitat for Humanity house project in Hightstown. Lions had to cancel their annual golf outing due to a saturation of area golf outings and lack of public participation but they still helped the Helene Cody Foundation get started with a one-time donation and provided Haiti earthquake relief funding.
In 2011, the Lions started the annual Rubber Duck Race, which has become an annual event on Cranbury Day and one of the club’s most successful fundraisers. In December 2011, the Lions donated the bench in front of Teddy’s restaurant to honor Teddy Nikitiades. In 2012, a historic retrospective on the club opened in the Cranbury Museum and the Club, with the help of local Scouts, planted 80 trees in town to signify its 80 years of service.
Today, the club remains a hub and a driving force in the community. Secretary John Ryan, who has been a Lion for over 25 years, originally with the East Brunswick Lions Club, and now, since he lives in Monroe with the Cranbury Lions Club, said, “The Lions don’t have clubhouses, don’t have secret meetings, they’re just regular men and women wanting to help. As you know we do all kinds of good stuff in the community, we have fun doing it and don’t make a big deal about what we do. All the monies we earn go back 100 percent to help others. Why should someone join? Only if they want to part of the solution.”
Mr. Ryan said he joined because he felt a need to help in an organized fashion and the Lions afforded him that opportunity.
“The people who gravitate to the Lions are truly wonderful people who need to help — it’s what we do,” he said.
In his time with the Lions he has been treasurer, president, secretary and just a regular Lion.
“Now I am on the Eversight Board — Eversight is the eye bank for New Jersey providing corneal transplant material,” he said.
The Cranbury Lions Club is always looking for new members, according to Membership Chairman John Goldstein.
Mr. Goldstein said membership is ideal is for young people, working people, those who have children in school, those approaching and in middle age and those who are retired.
“These are all good candidates for Lions and for sustaining the club into the future,” he said.
He said the time commitment is personal, with some Lions showing up once a year and others showing up at every event. Those interested in joining can work on a few projects and get to know the folks involved and see if they enjoy being a Lion before making a commitment, he said.
“It’s not a tug-your-arm process,” he said. “And we are not a fraternal organization. We’re a civically-oriented organization focused on service.”
“One hundred percent of the money the club raises is used for charity, 75 percent of which supports local and regional not-for-profit projects such as autism, emergency services — fire, EMS, and disaster relief, the food bank, Little League, Scouting, scholarships and the Quest Program,” Cranbury Lions Club President Phillis Johnson said. “And because our organizational focus is blindness prevention, the remainder of the funds we raise goes to eye banks, eyeglass repair, diabetes and other sight saving programs and organizations,” she added.
The club currently meets once per month at Teddy’s Restaurant.
Upcoming Lions Club events include the Halloween Pumpkin Carving at Cranbury School on Oct. 30. The club’s 67th annual Pancake Breakfast will be held in the Cranbury School cafeteria on Dec. 6. The club is expecting Santa to show up this year.
For more information about the Cranbury Lions Club or to find out more about becoming a member, visit http://www.cranbury.org/clubs/Lions/servclub.htm.
By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Managing Editor