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Club fills years with people, purpose

When Bert Muller, president of the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children, arrived here in 1952, "I didn't know a single person, and my boss suggested I join Jaycees," he recalls. "I got a haircut, got all dressed up the following Friday night, expecting to meet some girls," he chuckled. "I found out the Jaycees was just for boys. That was my first disappointment."

Seriously, though, Muller says the organization has helped him immensely.

"Joining was the base of my entire friendships and business career in this city," Muller said. "The men I met _ I still know these people. I know if I needed anything, I could just pick up the phone and call them."

Muller and other Jaycees members of the '30s, '40s and '50s will "remember when" at a reunion at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Pepin's Restaurant. For information and reservations, call 345-9111 weekdays.

There was not much this civic-minded group did not do. The Jaycees conducted "get out the vote" campaigns, cleaned up the city every spring and conducted Miss St. Petersburg and Miss Florida contests. When the spring equinox came, Jaycees blossomed in white suits to herald the occasion. One of their biggest projects was the annual Tarpon Roundup, popular locally for many years.

It was the Jaycees who built and originally operated the Beach Club, now the soon-to-be-demolished Doc Webb Senior Citizens Center on The Pier approach. And when World War II came and many of the Jaycees joined the military, those at home opened the clubhouse for servicemen stationed in the area, operating dances for them to meet local women.

Former Jaycees president Milton Reese remembered that Jim Young ran the operation, until Young went to war and his wife, Bett, took over.

Tom Brew came here in 1950, and friends Reese and Merle Wadsworth got him into the Jaycees as "a good way to meet people. There were 700 members then. Anybody who was anybody was a member," he said.

The Jaycees these days form a smaller group. But the two clubs in South Pinellas County now _ the St. Petersburg Jaycees, with a membership of 35, and the Sunshine City Jaycees, with about 75 members _ are active.

Both have been coed since 1984, when Jaycee-ettes, the women's branch of the organization, merged with Jaycees.

Why has membership declined?

"There are so many clubs today and so many places to go," said Reese, president of the St. Petersburg Jaycees in 1953-54.

He said also that perhaps this generation does not have as much civic pride as former generations did. "They're so busy trying to make a living that they don't think of projects for the city."

Brew thinks the big changes in Jaycees membership came in the '60s, when "people turned off anything establishment _ Jaycees, fraternities, sororities and civic clubs."

Reese agrees, adding that in small towns, the Jaycees are still active, "but there's just too much competition in big cities."

Paul Chesler, a member of St. Petersburg Jaycees, says the lack of a meeting place likely is a factor in declining membership.

Still, his group has raised $15,000 to $16,000 through golf tournaments and just finished conducting an annual haunted house at Pinellas Square Mall. The biggest project is the annual Mutt Derby during Festival of States week. "And we now feed all participants and volunteers at the Special Olympics," Chesler said. Much of the money the group raises goes to diabetes research.

Mark Dawson, president of the Sunshine City Jaycees, says his group has raised more than $60,000 in nine years from its biggest project, a golf tournament that benefits All Children's Hospital. The club also assembles and sells a St. Petersburg calendar to benefit the Suncoast Children's Dream Fund. A third project is a St. Patrick's Day Bowl-a-Thon, for the Pinellas County Education Foundation.