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Johnny Vardeman: Lively Lions left footprints all over town
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Gainesville Lions Club, it seems, has always been identified with City Park, especially when Gainesville High School’s Red Elephant football team romped over the field.

For many years, it was a Lions Club member who sold you a ticket at the game at little concrete block booths on either side of the field. Somebody else does that now, but the Lions, along with the Clermont-North Hall Lions Club, park cars at several lots around the field, proceeds going to youth recreational programs and Lions projects.

Gainesville Lions organized in 1934, its first president Dan Jacobs, one of the principals in the old Jacobs Motors Co., which sold Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs on Broad Street.

The club at one time had nearly 100 members, but like many civic clubs today, membership isn’t what it used to be. While more are on its rolls, a dozen members present would be a good day when the Lions meet every other week at St. Paul United Methodist Church on Washington Street.

Mike Hall, its president, yearns for more members so the club can grow again. He cites the organization’s volunteer work, even with its small membership, and its projects, such as with the Children’s Theater, eye screenings in the schools, sending children to a camp for the blind, support for the Lighthouse for the Blind, eyeglass collections, etc. Its broom and mop sales are familiar to local residents at Mule Camp Market every year.

The history is rich, as attested to by Herman Jones, approaching half a century as a member, and Charlie Farr, the oldest active member with 70 years under his belt.

But back to City Park — Lions such as A.D. Wright, L.D. Lawson, Rufus Brown and Roy Cromartie, were among members who built the original field house. The club also installed a scoreboard and clock, which were used until winds blew them down. It also added seats to the stadium.

The Lions also provided a pressbox as part of a larger project to improve facilities at City Park. But Bob Matthews, a Lions Club leader not known for subtlety, didn’t like it. So he tied a rope to it, hitched the rope up to the back of his car and pulled the thing down.

That obligated the Lions to provide a new pressbox and concession stand, and they did.

The late Rufus Brown was known as “Mr. Football,” so involved he was with what the Lions had in mind for City Park. It wasn’t hard for youngsters, even some adults, to sneak into football games because there was nothing to stop them except the sharp eyes of Lions members. Frustrated, Rufus, strung a rope around the field, perhaps discouraging somewhat the free fans.

That wasn’t good enough, however, and the Lions in 1953 decided to put a fence all the way around the football field. The fence wasn’t all that easy, however. A local resident didn’t like the idea of a fence around a park that had been open to everybody for all those years. He had Lawson, chairman of the fence committee, arrested as soon as the first post hole was dug. After a brief halt to the work, the resident dropped the charges, and the fence proceeded to surround the field.

The fence wasn’t a cure-all for lost money, however. One night after a football game at City Park, Lions were depositing money from ticket sales at a local bank when robbers took $1,500 from them.

The Lions also had plans to put a $25,000 train in the park, complete with trestles, tunnel and a station. Southern Railway had promised a trestle and track along with a crew to install them. A contractor offered to build the tunnel, and others would donate railroad ties.

Neighbors in Longstreet Hills adjacent to the park, however, objected and eventually went to court over the train proposal. After the Supreme Court frowned on the idea, the Lions moved on to other projects.

The Lions’ history over the years is interesting, to say the least. Despite ups and downs, they have contributed immeasurably to the community, their improvements at City Park not the only evidence of their generosity. They have contributed to many local causes, such as the hospital, schools, nursing homes, the health department, Special Olympics, Salvation Army, Boy Scouts, Humane Society, March of Dimes and many others.

They hope to recruit more members to continue the impact the club has had on so many lives in the community and beyond.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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