Gasoline, diesel fuel, even a propane torch — Dick McElroy used whatever it took to make sure the infield at the old Lions Ball Park in Lacombe would be dry enough for a weekend of high-calibre baseball.
With major league scouts in town to watch teams coming in from across Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., and others from as far away as Florida and Alaska — not to mention up to 10,000 fans for a weekend of ball — the Lacombe Lions Baseball Tournament, touted as the biggest and richest in Western Canada, had to go on, no matter what Mother Nature had to say.
In charge of the grounds, McElroy would start fires on the shale infield if it was too wet, and within an hour the players could take the field for first pitch.
From 1950 to 1988, the tournament ran for one glorious week every summer, putting Lacombe on the map and drawings thousands of spectators.
The inaugural tournament saw 135 kg (300 pounds) of tomatoes and 1,000 pies used to feed the attending throng and featured an RCAF air show as well.
The 1960 iteration was hailed as the most covered event in the Alberta sporting landscape, with five daily newspapers, three TV stations, nine radio stations, and six weeklies reporting on the action.
And the players were good, too.
Former Expos star Tim Wallach played one year, and longtime organizer Bill Douglas once estimated as many as 40 men who played in the tournament made it to the ‘Big Time.’
“They were very good players. Extremely good, actually. We always had a good number of people who came up from the National and American Leagues every year to watch the players,” explained McElroy.
When the diamond was torn down in 1988 to make way for a new school, so went the tournament.
But while the tournament may have long been the most recognizable thing with the Lacombe Lions name attached to it, it is far from the only thing the service club brought to the city.
In its first year of existence alone, the club provided for the construction of new tennis courts, sweaters for two hockey teams, milk distribution to school children and improvements to a playground.
And since 1938, the projects have continued through the work of more than 350 members past and present.
The service club provided a community bus for Lacombe for years, has held its annual Child Identification Day since the 1990s, and the Lions Community Band has been keeping toes a-tappin’ since 1968.
Current president Sharon Reiter joined the club in 1991 after the local Lioness Club folded and women were allowed to enlist in the previously fraternal organization.
She said the list of contributions the Lions Club has made to the community is long.
The $10,000 the club gave to the Lacombe Hospital for its pain management program last year, she said, makes her most proud.
The Red Deer Central Lions Club has grown up alongside its Lacombe cousin.
It too started in 1938, when 25 men came together to provide the growing community with volunteer services.
All those who have come after those founders have done so in spades.
And alongside that volunteerism, the club has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars as it has helped to build the city.
From its beginning, the club has been involved in facilitating Camp Woods west of Sylvan Lake for the Scouts movement.
It has been one of the main benefactors for speedskating locally, and in the late 1960s opened what is now one of five Lions campgrounds in Central Alberta.
Mid-1990s renovations to the Red Deer Public Library benefited from a $100,000 donation from the Lions, and the club was a main contributor to the construction of a hydrotherapy pool at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre in the 1980s, and then again in 2005 when rehabilitation facilities were relocated.
Larry Johnstone joined the club in 1981 after transferring from Regina, where he joined the Lions movement because they were unique, delivering Sears catalogues as part of fundraising efforts.
“I’ve always enjoyed Lionism. You’re doing a lot of projects every year to raise money, but you also develop lots of friends. Two or three of the families we met here, we’re still very close friends.
Socially, it was very good,” said Johnstone, who remains a member of the club.
“When people come to the (Westerner Days) fair, a lot of them will come to our booth to buy our draw tickets. They tell you right away, ‘Over the years you have helped us in some way or another, and that’s the reason I’m buying these tickets, because you do so well for the community.’ ”
But, like other service clubs, Lions groups are struggling to attract new members — Lacombe has 21 members at present, while Red Deer has about 35. Johnstone said Lions clubs internationally are moving towards getting full families involved, children included.
“When I think of the Lacombe club, a lot of them are man and wife. It’s certainly worked for them … I think ladies have invigorated the whole movement,” he said.
The two local clubs are coming together on Saturday to jointly celebrate their 75th anniversaries. Judge Brian Stevenson of Calgary, a past international president of Lions clubs, will address the revellers.
The Lions movement, started in Chicago in 1917, represents the largest service organization in the world, with more than 1.3 million members. Internationally, it focuses its efforts on working with the blind and improving peoples’ vision, and disaster relief.
The Red Deer club meets the second Monday of each month. To join, contact Ed Lasiuta at 403-314-0350.
The Lacombe Lions Club convenes on the first and third Mondays of every month. To join, contact Reiter at 403-782-5179 or firstname.lastname@example.org.