St. Paul Jaycees call it quits, but $800K in charitable cash lives on

St. Paul Jaycees call it quits, but 0K in charitable cash lives on

The St. Paul Jaycees were born from a gathering of 50 young men at the downtown St. Paul Hotel during a more formal time in America, when those of even middle-class means rarely left the house without a button-down shirt, tie or blazer, and joining fraternal organizations was considered a point of pride.

After 91 years, the nonprofit St. Paul “Junior Chamber of Commerce” — which opened its doors to women in the 1970s and kept them open through a precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court fight — quietly said its last goodbyes at the end of August, victim to changing demographics, evolving work cultures and a socially isolating pandemic.

“Yes, the membership trend is real,” said Lisa Hiebert, a past president of the St. Paul chapter active in its wind-down. “The U.S. Jaycees and the Minnesota Jaycees have experienced the same challenges. St. Paul held on longer than most urban chapters.”

The St. Paul Jaycees have effectively ceased to exist, but that’s not to say their good works are over.

Their cash lives on, to the tune of more than $800,000, which resides with their Charitable Foundation. Grants of $2,500 are currently available for nonprofit causes that improve the city.

Jaycees International still operates chapters in more than 100 countries, but membership throughout the U.S. has slid precipitously, alongside that of other once-storied civic associations.

The Minneapolis chapter closed more than 20 years ago, reopened under new leadership around 2010, then closed again about two years ago.

In St. Paul, a reunion celebration is planned for spring 2021.

STARTED DURING PROHIBITION

The once-legendary St. Paul chapter, which at mid-century drew nearly 1,000 members ages 18 to 35, was birthed during Prohibition, came of age during the Great Depression, championed polio drives in the 1950s and invented or revived some of the most longstanding traditions of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, including the Klondike Kates.

As of its 2018 tax filings, the St. Paul Jaycees Charitable Foundation — a separate legal entity from the chapter — had $782,000 in cash and assets on hand and no outstanding liabilities, according to the most recent filings available at Guidestar.org.

With the chapter’s remaining assets now added, that pot of money has since grown by about $80,000.

“The foundation is there and ready to continue to support the St. Paul Jaycees efforts, if and when young professionals want to reignite the St. Paul chapter,” said Hiebert, who chairs the 13-member foundation board, which includes five non-voting former chapter members.

The St. Paul Jaycees Charitable Foundation is currently accepting grant funding requests of up to $2,500 for nonprofit projects and programs that support residents, businesses, visitors and the St. Paul community in general. The application deadline is 5 p.m. on Nov. 29. More information is online at jcistpaul.org.

SYNONYMOUS WITH WINTER CARNIVAL

Beginning in St. Paul in 1920, long before widespread traffic lights, school police patrols composed of young students were effectively deputized to keep their classmates safe by directing traffic. The St. Paul Jaycees began fundraising for the police patrols in 1929, and later launched annual police patrol parades, which were adopted as a tradition of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. (Courtesy of the St. Paul Jaycees)

In 1929, the St. Paul Jaycees were launched by future Winter Carnival Association president Les Farrington (who would go on to become president of the Jaycees national organization) and a gathering of some 50 young men at the downtown St. Paul Hotel.

The fraternal club soon became synonymous with charitable drives, parades, golf classics, community competitions and social events. Members who aged out of the 18-35 age group — later expanded to ages 18-40 — remained active as “roosters.”

Their efforts ranged from softball tournaments and a Candy Cane Ball led by the Jaycees Wives Club, an auxiliary organization, to the “Les Farrington Best 100” art contest.

In 1936, Farrington helped revive the Winter Carnival, a St. Paul tradition since the 1880s that had grown dormant during the Great Depression.

From then on, the Winter Carnival would rely heavily on the Jaycees to staff or lead events, and some traditions — such as the King’s Guard, who defend King Boreas against Vulcanus Rex — moved back and forth between the organizations and outside groups such as local colleges.

In 1961, the Winter Carnival hired the last Klondike Kate, who played the character of a saucy, buxom, Gold Rush-inspired casino-cabaret entertainer abandoned by her man but reveling in her new freedom.

The Jaycees reintroduced her in 1971 through an annual Winter Carnival competition that continues to this day. The Royal Order of Klondike Kates past and present now make more than 100 appearances per year.

In 1956, young men in homemade race carts competed in the Jaycees’ Soapbox Derby, which attracted some 5,000 spectators along the road leading to the Minnesota State Capitol. The competition, which aired on KSTP-TV, ignited a tradition that continued into at least the mid-1970s.

From 1982 to 2004, a “Tunnel of Terror” Halloween fest drew visitors by the dozens deep underground, inside the limestone confines of a cave situated near the Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Park.

‘IF YOU TRIED A PROJECT AND YOU FAILED, YOU STILL LEARNED SOMETHING’

Monte Johnson, a Deloitte and Touche accountant, had been involved with a service fraternity as an undergraduate in Wisconsin in the late 1970s that tended to feed members to the Jaycees.

He joined the St. Paul chapter when he moved to the Twin Cities in 1980 and became chapter president in 1987, a year when the chapter hosted 150 projects. They worked closely with the Special Olympics, went fishing and Christmas shopping with low-income kids and ran the Klondike Kate pageant.

Among their charitable youth work, the St. Paul Jaycees became active with the Special Olympics in the 1980s, hosting multiple events for young people with special needs. (Courtesy of the St. Paul Jaycees)

“I got my first introduction to the Winter Carnival, and then I was Prime Minister in 1990 and then I was King Boreas in 2019,” said Johnson, who recalled the presidency being an intense but fun training ground for future leaders.

“If you tried a project and you failed, you still learned something, and it was better than doing nothing,” he said. “It was a lot better to fail there than at work on your job.”

It was such a time-consuming endeavor, nominating committees had a tradition of roping in spouses and employers and seeking their permission before asking a board member to be president. “If they said no, you might never know you had been nominated,” Johnson said.

Despite all its charitable works, the club’s greatest legacy, however, may be a legal one.

U.S. SUPREME COURT FIGHT OVER FEMALE MEMBERS

Once upon a time in America, the St. Paul Jaycees mounted the kind of national legal fight over women’s rights that one mostly reads about in history books. The five-year legal battle would have longstanding repercussions for the Lions Club, the Kiwanis Club and other fraternal groups across the country.

It was the early 1980s, and both the Minneapolis and St. Paul chapters had bucked tradition by electing female presidents for the first time since the “Junior Chamber of Commerce” was founded as a men’s club for young professionals in Tulsa, Okla., in the 1920s.

The St. Paul and Minneapolis chapters had been accepting female members since the mid-1970s, in open defiance of the national organization’s bylaws for a decade. The move raised the ire of the national organization, which had experimented with accepting female members and then given the idea the boot.

Ordered to force their leaders to step down, Minneapolis acquiesced. St. Paul dug in its heels to protect its president, inviting a yearslong legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Organizations such as the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization of Women and the National League of Cities filed legal briefs in support of the St. Paul chapter, which had its membership revoked by the U.S. Jaycees in January 1984.

“That was a big deal for our chapter to do the right thing,” Johnson said.

TWO JUSTICES FROM MINNESOTA

Two of the judges on the nation’s highest court recused themselves from presiding over the case, which struck close to home and involved familiar parties.

Justice Warren Burger, considered a conservative voice on the court, had been born and raised in St. Paul and had himself served as a St. Paul Jaycee. Also from St. Paul was Justice Harry Blackmun, one of the court’s most liberal members, who was a former Minneapolis Jaycee.

On July 3, 1984, the Supreme Court in “Roberts v. United States Jaycees” — named for Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kathryn Roberts — found by unanimous decision that the Minnesota Jaycees were beholden to the state’s Human Rights Act, an anti-discrimination law, and had to accept female members.

The St. Paul chapter, which had temporarily renamed itself the Community Business Leaders, was soon reinstated.

The precedent-setting legal opinion had far-reaching impact, laying the foundation for the integration of fraternal clubs everywhere.

“I had a board of 20, and we did over 130 events in 2004, including volunteering with the Winter Carnival ice castle,” said Hiebert, who served as chapter president that year.

She had met her husband through the board three years earlier. “There’s a lot of Jaycees couples out there,” Hiebert said. “You’re hanging with like-minded folks in the community.”

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