Optimists ‘all about kids,’ 50 years ago and today
Group marks half a century of helping youth
Fifty years ago, eggs were selling at 38 cents a dozen; Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon; The Beatles released “Hey Jude”; and Calvert County had a population of about 20,000, one-fifth of what it is now.
“So things have changed,” Spencer Howes said Saturday night, after hearing that a Christmas tree used to be sold at a price as low as $5 during the Christmas tree sale organized by the Optimist Club of Calvert. Nowadays, the cheapest tree costs around $35.
Howes was one of about 60 people sitting in a room decorated with blue lights at the Calvert County Fairgrounds to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Calvert Optimists. Former presidents and members of the club came from as far as West Virginia to attend the event.
Formed in October 1968 with 29 members, the Optimist Club has grown to have 79 members and a long list of programs it either hosts or participates in. Over the past five decades, the club has had different fundraisers ranging from printing high school football game pamphlets to selling hot chocolate and ice cream at the county fair, accord- ing to Philip Mohler, one of the initial 29 members and a former president of the club.
The club “is all about kids,” Mohler said in a phone interview last week. “There was an obvious need. There was no form of public recreation. … We wanted to work with kids.”
Beginning with installing football goal posts at Calvert High School and putting up basketball nets at local churches, the club went on to establish its signature scholarship program. Other than meeting the needs of the youth, Mohler said the club wants to recognize those for the things they have achieved. Since 1975, the program has awarded close to $300,000 to Calvert high school graduates.
The Optimist Club also started programs like the oratorical contest, which has had lifelong impact on some of the youth who participated in it.
Greg Bowen, executive director of the American Chestnut Land Trust in Prince Frederick, wrote a letter detailing how his experience with the contest has stayed with him ever since. The letter was read out aloud by a club member Saturday night.
Describing himself as a “shy, backward farm boy,” Bowen said he spent weeks working on his speech and practiced it in his bedroom. Although he didn’t win the regional contest after winning the county round, it didn’t matter.
“The contest taught me valuable lessons that I never forgot,” he wrote.
Bowen went on to study math at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and thought he would not be doing any more public speaking. But after he came back to Calvert to farm, he became president of Calvert County Young Farmers and served on a committee to preserve local land, which led to him getting a job in Calvert County’s planning and zoning department, of which he served as director at one point.
“It is entirely possible that I would never have take these steps if the Optimist Club of Calvert County had not taught me how to speak in public,” he wrote. “Thanks again for all you did for me and for all that you do for the youth in Calvert County.”
Other than inspiring youth, members themselves have formed a bond of fellowship over the years that transcends through their personal lives. Bob Chaney, a for- mer president, choked up multiple times when talking about how Dickie Pitcher, a former president who died two months ago, was the push behind the annual Christmas tree sale.
“We had a lot of fun and enjoyment through the Optimist Club,” Mohler said Saturday evening. “We had members with a variety of abilities that enabled us to do just about anything.”
On Saturday, the club also honored Evelyn Chaney, Penny Dorsey and Debby Horsmon, who have supported the club through making bows to go along with the Christmas tree sale, organizing bake sales and many other endeavors, according to Mohler.
Going forward, the club said it added a teacher appreciation week, Santa night and junior Optimist clubs at local high schools in recent years and is developing a youth film festival, an art contest, a poster contest and other programs.
David Peterson, left, watches in amazement as John Turner tells an anecdote related to the club’s Christmas tree sale Saturday evening at the Calvert County Fairgrounds during an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Optimist Club of Calvert. Peterson and Turner are both former presidents of the club.