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Local Civitan dates back to 1947; still serving area communities

The Jonesborough Civitan has been making a difference in the community since its inception in 1947.


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Most residents and visitors pass by the gazebo at Mill Spring Park or the shelter at Wetlands Water Park assuming they were built and paid for by the Town of Jonesborough. The two facilities are but a couple of the projects completed by the Jonesborough Civitan Club.

On the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, the group of approximately 20 members meets at the Blackthorn Club near Jonesborough for fellowship and discussion of projects that will benefit the community.

Current projects include support for the Civinettes at David Crockett High

School, wheelchairs for those in need, funding for five Free Little Libraries in conjunction with the Jonesborough Community Chest and flags for Veterans Park. The group also sponsors Little League baseball and soccer teams in the community.

The Civinettes are an all-female club. Their new advisors are Lauren Murr and Julie Rastall.

The local community service organization was chartered on Aug. 15, 1947. The charter was issued by Civitan International, based in Birmingham, Alabama and founded in 1917 “to build good citizenship by providing a volunteer organization of clubs dedicated to serving individual and community needs with an emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities.”

The organization broke off from a service club when members in Birmingham, Alabama felt it was “focused too much on increasing the business of club members.” The club was led by Courtney Shropshire and named “Civitan,” derived from the Latin word for citizenship.

“I was not in a civic club,” said Jimmy Rhein, who joined the group in 1985. “I was working in Kingsport and could not go to a noon meeting. I joined because the membership met at night.”

Now, the club does hold its meetings at noon. Rhein said he discovered that “It was a good way to make connections with others and to help the community.”

Member Steve Alexander joined the club in 1987. He also was working outside of Jonesborough. He said, “Dad (Wayne Alexander) had been a club member, so I joined.”

Alexander said the gazebo project was undertaken when he was president. “We were looking for a large project,” he said. “The town owned the land and the club spent between $12,000 and $15,000 to built the gazebo,” now the site of numerous events including weddings and ghost stories during the annual Storytelling Festival.

The Storytelling Festival is one of the groups’ fund raising projects where members assist with traffic and parking during the annual event in early October. Other fund- raisers are a chili supper in February and a golf tournament usually held in late March or early April.

Traditionally, the club has also sold fruit cakes during November and December. The sales by what is now a 40,000 member international organization began in 1951 when Civitan Earl Carver stopped by a small bakery in Claxton, Georgia and purchased a fruit cake. It was so good he purchased cakes to take home to Florida and then suggested his club sell the cakes to raise money — which they did. Since then, Civitan and Claxton Fruit Cakes have become synonymous with the holiday season. One of the most successful fundraising projects beginning in 1976 has been the Civitan Candy Box Project. The program has raised $50 million through the placement of boxes of mints at businesses in members’ communities.

Alexander said the shelter at Wetlands Water Park originally was moved to accommodate the park. “It was our project from start to finish.” Adding to the structure are restrooms close to the shelter that were built by the Town of Jonesborough.

The Civitans organized and sponsored the “Miss Historic Jonesborough Scholarship Pageant” in 1985. Several years later the group was offered the “Miss Johnson City” franchise. Thereafter it was run as a combined pageant crowning both “Miss Historic Jonesborough” and “Miss Johnson City.”

Then, several years ago, the pageant split from the Civitans and is operated as a separate organization.

Rhein and Alexander both said, “We are always looking for the next project.” Alexander added, “We are now working with the Town of Jonesborough on weather resistant musical chimes that people can ring by striking.” Civitan has joined with the local Kiwanis Club in some projects such as the annual golf tournament.

A major project of the club in the past was a joint venture with the Jonesborough Riding Club. It was the Jonesborough Horse Show usually held on the July 4th weekend and took place in the 1950s and 1960s. It was held on the 11E Bypass where Mark Ferguson’s Car Wash and Storage business is now located. In the early ‘50s the group also sponsored a Minstrel Show at the old Jonesborough High School, now known as Academy Hill.

The organization is proud of the fact it was the first major, all-male service club to accept women as members. An informal ladies’ auxiliary had been part of Civitan since the late 1920s but women had never been Club members. Membership was first opened to women in 1974.

Current officers of the club are: Jimmy Rhein, President; Mike Dixon, Vice-President; Jeff Orr, Secretary and Taylor Fleenor, Treasurer. Dues for members are $70.00 per quarter.

“We have been sponsoring activities in the community for over 50 years,” said Rhein. Members of the group have included former Mayor Kelly Wolfe, Steve’s father and well-known funeral director Wayne Alexander, Sam Mitchell, Sr., Sam May and Harry and Wilbur Weems.

A couple of outstanding Civitans from the past are Jack Leonard and W.C. Rowe. Leonard’s daughter was Miss Tennessee. Rowe was a Washington County Commissioner for many years. Former Washington County School Director Ron Dyke’s father, J.C., and his grandfather were Civitans. Members of other Civitan clubs throughout the nation have included Thomas Edison, Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Harry Truman. Others have included United State Supreme Justices Hugo Black and Ed Sanford; Cornelius Vanderbilt, IV, Richard Petty, and Bo Jackson.

The organization has adopted a special emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities. It has been a major sponsor of Special Olympics and operates the UAB Civitan International Research Center in Birmingham. This world-class research facility is a center for research into disorders such as autism, Down syndrome, brain tumors and epilepsy.

Tennessee has played a major role in Civitan’s history. For example, the group’s second annual convention attended by 115 clubs was held at Chattanooga in 1922. The Knoxville Civitans raised $100,000 to build a three-story hospital for indigent tuberculosis patents in 1923.

If you are interested in Civitan Club membership or would like to know more about the organization, contact Jimmy Rhein at telephone number 423-753-4522 or email: “[email protected]