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As Junior Service League of Brooksville turns 75, a look back at its rich legacy

I've always heard that Dorothy Mason was the smart one, which is saying something in her family, because whatever else you might think about its members, they weren't stupid.

Her brother, Alfred McKethan, who died in 2002, ran Hernando State Bank and, more or less, the county for about five decades starting in 1940. Her now-deceased husband, Joe Mason Sr., was executive vice president of the bank. Her son, Joe Mason Jr., was for a time the most powerful development lawyer in town.

But none of them was valedictorian of their high school classes. Mrs. Mason (Hernando High Class of '29) was. She was also president of her sorority at what is now Florida State University.

Mrs. Mason, 99, didn't go into the family business and wasn't expected to. What she did do was serve as the first president of the Junior Service League of Brooksville. At a party marking the group's 75th anniversary last week at Southern Hills Plantation Club, she received a standing ovation as the last surviving founder.

The Junior League is still going strong. But, obviously, things were different in 1935, when it occupied the energy of a bright young member of high society, or the closest thing to it in Brooksville.

The bank business was not an option for young women then, said Nancy Mountain, 85, a friend of Mrs. Mason's and a former Junior League president. "I don't think the family would want her to, say, lower herself by working with ordinary people."

Joe Mason doesn't quite agree with that. His mother taught history at Hernando High for several years before she was married, and his grandmother, Alice McKethan, became the first member of a bank's board of directors in Florida in the 1940s.

But there's no denying that women in those days who didn't have to work generally didn't, leaving more time for the Junior League. With government's smaller role, the role of service organizations was larger. And, because the county's population was tiny, there were fewer of them.

"There were two groups that were the go-to organizations if you wanted to get something done in the community," Joe Mason said. "That was the Junior Service League for women and the Kiwanis Club for the men."

Mrs. Mason, unfortunately, wasn't able to provide an eyewitness account of the league's early years when I met her and her son Thursday at her brick bungalow near downtown Brooksville. She still looks alert, healthy and like "a very nice, elegant lady," as Mountain described her. But a stroke several years ago deprived her of most of her speaking ability and this newspaper of the chance to interview a woman with a privileged view of a century's worth of county history. By not asking sooner, we blew it.

There are clues about the Junior League's beginnings, though, in the minutes of its first meeting on Dec. 2, 1935. The names of the founding members include McKethan's wife, Ruth, as well as Wilma Weeks, who volunteered the use of the space above her father's hardware store on Main Street as a meeting place.

The new group's adviser from Kiwanis was S.C. Harvard, a revered doctor in town. The first project was one that has been a standard ever since: "Club voted to follow plan of Ruth Weeks that club members call at homes of the townspeople asking for groceries to put in (Christmas) baskets for the poor."

Another of its early accomplishments was establishing a nursery at Brooksville's first full-fledged hospital on W Jefferson Street. Junior League members also hung drapes there, just as they did when its replacement opened, on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, decades later. In the 1950s, they helped the Kiwanis Club build the Teen Hall in downtown Brooksville. For years afterward, the Junior League held dances there and supervised teenagers who stopped in after school, said Nancy Mountain's husband, Frazier.

"Anybody who graduated from Hernando High in the 1950s or 1960s will have fond memories of Teen Hall," said Bob Martinez, class of '63. "I remember it being real dark with a great big jukebox with all the hits, and the kids would go there and dance."

The Junior League wasn't all about work, Frazier Mountain said.

"They kept the social bandwagon rolling here in the late 1930s, when there wasn't a whole lot in Brooksville, including money."

It still is about socializing, though much of it is done while working, said Elane Rogers, a teacher at Moton Elementary School who served as president 11 years ago. Members have staffed a thrift shop and cooked chili to raise money. They have packed Christmas baskets. They've wielded paint brushes for Paint Your Heart Out and hammers for Habitat for Humanity.

Starting as a teacher was easier, Rogers said, because she knew many other teachers from the Junior League. When her son "had to buy flowers for prom, of course he went to Westover's" Flowers and Gifts, owned by another former member, Tricia Bechtelheimer.

"They were business connections, but they were real connections, because we'd spent all this time doing our service hours," said Rogers, who is originally from Missouri and moved to Brooksville in the late 1980s. "They were the connections that really made me feel at home here."

Which is not a bad legacy for a long-ago bright young member of high society.

As Junior Service League of Brooksville turns 75, a look back at its rich legacy 12/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 11, 2010 10:43am]
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