A look back at some of the milestones of Civitan International since its founding in 1917, through present day.
The year is 1917. World War I dominates the news and the mind, but in the heart of the American South, an idea which would change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people is taking shape. Dr. Courtney W. Shropshire joins a group of Birmingham, Alabama, businessmen for lunch. They are interested in organizing a strictly local service club.
No one remains untouched by the war that consumes their world, including these men safe at home. The world rejoices on Armistice Day in 1918. As life returns to normal, these Southern gentlemen direct their patriotism toward the homefront. And 1919 sees Civitan’s 160 members active in a variety of projects — from raising $5,000 for the Boys Week Fund to heading the movement for street lights in the city.
The decade of the 1920’s roared in with much hope and expectation for the future.
April 15, 1920 — the ideals of Civitan are officially incorporated into an international association. Shropshire is elected international president and the Birmingham Club is presented charter number one, but charter numbers two and three are only weeks away. Dr. Shropshire and Civitan Claude Hagan personally guarantee a bank loan to finance the fledgling association’s growth. The first field representative almost immediately charters clubs in Arkansas and Tennessee. Active club building brings 30 clubs into the association by the first international convention in Birmingham in 1921. Civitan lives up to its international name when the first club outside the United States charters in Geneva, Switzerland in 1922, and in Canada with the chartering of the Hamilton Club in 1925.
Civitan begins its most enduring project, Junior Civitan, with the Portland, Maine club. The decade ends with 149 clubs.
Economic depression seizes the world, and Civitan is not immune. Expansion comes to a standstill and many clubs become tragedies of the times. Seventy-two clubs emerge from these difficult days, but they are active Civitans, particularly concerned with tuberculosis, crime, character building and underprivileged young people. Clubs touch thousands of young lives through cooperation with Scouts, the YMCA and Boys’ Clubs.
The ’30s is a decade of important firsts. Nashville, Tennessee, starts the first new member orientation program — Civitan School. Civitan reaches out for younger members for the first time; “20-30 Civitan Associates” is the name given clubs designed for young men.
The international convention is held outside the United States in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The first international citizenship essay contest is held. In a move that foreshadows the future, Civitan clubs begin organizing auxiliaries for women, and 1936 will be the first year Civitan International is free of debt since its founding.
The 1940s dawn against a backdrop of international tension and global warfare. Civitans are becoming accustomed to rationing, blackouts and air raid warnings. Civitans again contribute their share of members to
the front lines. Those remaining at home busy themselves with numerous projects to raise civilian and military morale. As the war draws to a close in 1945, Civitans focus their energies on peaceful issues. Honor Keys, the highest award given for service by Civitan International, are presented for the first time in 1945, and the cause of mental retardation is adopted as a special emphasis on the international level.
The years following World War II are prosperous ones. The number of Civitan clubs doubles by 1950, and a committee is formed to study problems resulting from rapid growth.
Claxton Fruit Cake and Civitan team up in the early 1950s. It is to become the longest enduring fund raising project in Civitan history. The organization bolsters its expansion efforts by introducing Collegiate Civitan. The election of Ernest A. Moore as president of Civitan International is a true milestone. From Toronto, Ontario, Canada, he is the first non-United States resident to be elected to that position.
Growth also brings opportunity. In this case, the opportunity for Civitan International to own its first permanent home. For $70,000, Civitan purchased a three-story building in downtown Birmingham.
The ’60s herald another decade of astonishing growth. That year holds the record for the most clubs chartered — 183 — and the largest single year membership gain — more than 4,000. While the remainder of the decade does not measure up to the 1960 membership pace, it is, nonetheless, an important time.
Members harness their energies and efforts under a new entity — the Civitan International Foundation. This will prove to be one of the organization’s most significant accomplishments.
Civitans busy themselves with all aspects of good citizenship. Special emphasis continues on Scouting and youth, aid to people with developmental disabilities, essay contests, crime and voting rights. Clergy Appreciation Week is observed for the first time.
Reaffirming their commitment to good citizenship, Civitans donate a 22-ton American Credo Monument to Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The decade ends with much of the organization’s focus on operations outside the United States. The mother club of Europe charters in Oslo, Norway, and Monterrey, Mexico, is added to the Civitan family.
The 1970s present new challenges and opportunities to all service clubs. Civitan makes a number of internal changes to face these challenges head-on. Four new departments, including Youth Activities, Growth, and Leadership Training, are established at the home office.
Civitan expands to Germany and Sweden. Rapid growth leads to provisional European district status. Korea and Japan soon open their borders to Civitan. The organization makes an even greater commitment to the study of mental retardation.
The now-familiar Candy Box Project is offered on an international basis.
New challenges always present opportunities for innovation. The 1970s see several inaugural events — the first Junior Civitan Sno-Do in Canada and in recognition of their growing influence, the first international president of Junior Civitan is elected.
In 1974 Civitan becomes the first formerly all-male service organization to welcome women as equal members. Another major Civitan interest gets its tentative start in the 1970s. Participation with Special Olympics at all levels of the organization will grow from a small spark to a bright flame, and Civitan once again finds its World Headquarters building too confining. A new building, built for Civitan’s needs, is dedicated in 1976.
Service on a massive scale characterizes the 1980s. Special Olympics touches the hearts of Civitans around the world. Through contributions and volunteer hours, Civitan becomes a premier sponsor of the International Special Olympics Games — the only service club to do so. Civitan’s ultimate commitment to people with developmental disabilities is expressed with an overwhelming vote to fund the Civitan International Research Center.
Membership reaches an all-time high during the decade. A program to charter Civitan clubs on college and university campuses wins approval and gets off to a rousing start, with the formation of Campus Civitan.
Women continue to find a place of service in all levels of Civitan. By decade’s close, the first woman to hold the office of president of Civitan International, Polly Mooney, is elected.
In 1992, Civitans celebrate the organization’s 75th anniversary with the unveiling of the UAB Civitan International Research Center, located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The Center is a world-class medical research facility dedicated to research, diagnosis, and treatment of developmental disabilities and other neurological disorders. It is founded through a $20 million commitment from Civitan International, and Civitans everywhere have a central focus for their fundraising to help people with developmental disabilities. Civitan International’s annual donation to the Center is greatly supported by the Civitan Chesapeake District’s Foundation, and enables the Center to purchase what the first research-dedicated fMRI scanner in the state of Alabama.
Civitan joins the digital age with the launch of the Civitan website, at www.Civitan.org.
Civitan expands to the African continent, with clubs chartered in Jordan, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria.
With the Civitan International Research Center, Civitans have a centralized outlet for their fundraising efforts around the world. The Center makes outstanding breakthroughs in medical research, and incorporates the Civitan-Sparks Clinics (previously the Sparks Center for Learning and Developmental Disorders), a clinical diagnosis and treatment center located in Birmingham.
While membership in North America experiences a decline, Civitan gains a massive expansion around the world. Clubs are chartered in Asia, Europe, and Africa. By the end of 2009, the Civitan family of countries includes a total of 30 nations.
Civitans now look toward the centennial anniversary of their organization. The organization unveils a new club category targeted at young adults, which are known as Young Professionals, or YP Civitan Clubs.
2012 marks the twenty-year anniversary of the UAB Civitan International Research Center. In 2016, the Center unveils the Civitan International Neuroimaging Laboratory, through which scientists will conduct even more advanced research into neurological disorders.
In preparation for the centennial anniversary, a capital campaign known as the Restoration Fund is launched, to fund repairs and refurbishment to the International Headquarters building. These repairs are slated to be completed before the Centennial International Convention in 2017, in Birmingham, Alabama.
There are now Civitan clubs in 47 countries around the world, all of whom are looking toward the next century of service.