March 17, 1917 was no ordinary day nor were the people involved, ordinary men. They were business and professional leaders concerned not only about their community but about world events. They were dreamers too wanting to make a difference in their world. They believed their actions could build a better world.
They had been meeting as a civic club which was slanted just a little too much toward personal gain to suit these men. They gave up the charter they had purchased and set out to make a club suitable to them. Gregory Johnston was elected as the first president of the group. Eventually they settled on the name Civitan, a phrase coined from the Latin "Civitas" loosely meaning citizenship. It had been suggested by Jelks K. Cabaniss. "Builders of Good Citizenship" was a natural motto for the civic-minded group. Arthur C. Crowder was the Civitan who suggested this symbolic phrase.
The club continued on a purely local basis during the frantic World War I years which began only a month and eleven days after the club formed. The group succeeded in every effort to benefit soldiers. It was a job of untiring loyalty and patriotism.
Arthur C. Crowder was the club's second president. Returning soldiers were heartily welcomed back into the club and service projects began to focus on children. Crowder was followed Dr. Courtney W. Shropshire who served two terms as president.
The dream of a international organization began with Dr. Shropshire, a surgeon, seldom seen without a red carnation in his lapel, shared his dream with a few close friends in the Birmingham club and the proposal was given unanimous approval by a small but enthusiastic group present at the Dr. Shropshire home that day. In that group were Jelks Cabaniss, Arthur Crowder, Reid Lawson, Percy W. Brower, H.E. Shropshire (Courtney's father), C.E. Woodrow, Kenneth C. Charlton and John V. Mix.
The process to incorporate was begun, and on April 15, 1920, the group met at the Southern Club, and Civitan International was born. Officers elected were: Dr. Courtney W. Shropshire, president; Rev. J.A. MacSporran, vice president; John Fry, treasurer; and John Mix, secretary. Charter Number One went to the Birmingham Civitan Club, later designated as "The Mother Club of Civitan International."
In the following months clubs in Helena, Arkansas, Memphis, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Jacksonville, Florida were chartered. By June of 1921, when the first international convention was held in Birmingham, there were 30 clubs and more than 300 delegates at the convention.
At the second convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee, delegates from 115 clubs attended. There were more than 3,300 Civitans throughout the United States.
Delegates to the 1925 convention bestowed the title, "Founder of Civitan International" on Shropshire. He is the only person to serve two terms as president. By then Civitan had 180 clubs.
Shropshire had many dreams for the organization some he would live to see. Others would be accomplished only after his death. Shropshire viewed women as partners not only in life but in civic involvement as well. The late 1920's would see a ladies auxiliary informally adopted by the organization but the dream of women as full members would not be realized until much later.
In 1974 at the Boston Convention, a proposal to delete the term "Male" from membership requirements was hotly debated. In fact, it was first thought the motion was defeated.
A delegate who was also a lawyer, pointed out that only the Bylaws required changing because membership requirements were in the Bylaws, not the Constitution. After a conference with the Judge Advocate and other legal experts in attendance, the point of order was upheld and the motion passed. Soon Civitans were building all-female clubs, a concept that changed as many established clubs decided to go co-ed.
From the very beginning, Civitan encouraged its clubs to seek out needs within their communities and to fulfill those needs. Some truly outstanding projects were among those tackled by these far-sighted leaders. They found crippled children living in dire poverty and paid for operations to help them walk.
They built hospitals, parks and playgrounds. They served as big brothers to troubled boys. They registered voters. Their dreams were big, their sights high and their accomplishments great.
The dream of a truly international organization was fleeting. Early clubs in Switzerland and Canada failed but leaders kept trying. It was not until 1932 that the Toronto Civitan Club was chartered.
It would be nearly 40 years before Civitan would establish clubs in Europe. In 1969 the Oslo Norway Club was chartered. By the mid 1970's, clubs would be chartered in other European countries and in Asia.
From the time Civitan chartered its first clubs, aid to those less fortunate was a notable project. Concern for developmentally disabled was a natural expansion of the early effort to assist physically challenged children. By the decade of the 1950's, Civitan work in this area had made giant strides and the momentous decision was made to adopt the developmentally handicapped as a major emphasis project.
While on a business trip in 1951, Civitan Earl Carver stopped by a small bakery in Claxton, Georgia. He purchased a loaf of the bakery's fruit cake. It was so good, he purchased others to take home to Florida. He got the idea of his club selling the cake to raise money for projects. His club liked the idea and the cakes.
Civitan's most profitable fund raiser began and continues to be the chief fund raising project of many clubs. Civitan and Claxton Fruit Cake have become synonymous during the holiday season in Canada and the United States.
In 1960 the Civitan International Foundation was established by the executive board. It took the death of our founder, Courtney W. Shropshire in 1965, to provide the impetus to get the foundation really going.
That year a scholarship fund for needy college students was established in his memory. Programs to honor outstanding members were created to collect funds. Only interest from these funds would be used as scholarships.
Other plans were made for the expansion of the Foundation, but little else was accomplished until 1976 when in Louisville, Kentucky, Civitans approached the executive board about a project to place candy boxes in restaurants. Patrons would deposit loose change in return for a mint.
The first funds completed construction of Cedar Lake Lodge, a home for developmentally disabled adults near Louisville. Later projects would find homes and other projects on behalf of people with developmental disabilities. Soon after this project was adopted, Civitan had funds to expand its work for people with developmental disabilities...all because of the dream of Louisville Civitans.
Today another dream is a reality. The Civitan International Research Center was dedicated in 1992 during the Birmingham Convention. Civitans are once again reaching out to those in need in new ways--this time not only to provide treatment but to look for ways to improve the quality of life and perhaps eventually prevent mental retardation and other developmental disabilities.