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Serving in Silence
The 24 Club does good works without bragging.

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Serving in Silence

The 24 women – never more, never fewer – of Silver City's 24 Club continue its 65-year-old tradition of helping those in need.

By Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Sitting at an outdoor table at Java the Hut coffee shop in Silver City's downtown Hub Plaza, Paula Cunningham and LeAnn Robinson pore over pages of a classic old photo album. The two hoot with good-natured laughs as they take turns pointing out one picture, then another, gasping out, "Will you look at that!" and "Oh, how precious!" as they flip through the old black-and-white images.

Robinson and Cunningham flip through a scrapbook of old photos of 24 Club members and events. (Photo by Donna Clayton Lawder)

There's a shot from the 1970s, a sassy-looking blonde done up in fishnets and a micro-short mini skirt. "That's from a 'casino night,' a fundraiser we used to have," recalls Cunningham. The blonde striking a cheesecake pose in the photo smiles over her shoulder. The only thing missing, perhaps, is a cigarette vendor's tray.

"That's Gina Davis Kirchoff," Cunningham says with a fond smile. "She got me into the club."

"The club" is the 24 Club, a unique Silver City institution celebrating 65 years of service to the community. Cunningham explains the name, which dates to the club's inception: "We thought, 'Well, what do we call ourselves?' We realized that at that time, we had 24 members, so we called ourselves the 24 Club!"

To this day, there have only been 24 active members of the club at any time. Membership is capped at that number, Cunningham says. But you don't have to wait for one of the do-gooders to die to join. After doing their respectable service and reaching their own golden years, ladies eventually become honorary members. They can keep their hand in club doings and attend the monthly meetings if they wish, though they're not allowed to vote, Cunningham explains. That opens space for new members.

A generous spirit, evidently, is the first requirement to be one of the 24. Cunningham goes on at length about the generosity she's witnessed among club members.

"Oh, you tell people they have to bring a canned good offering for a food drive," she says. "These women show up with boxes! It's heartwarming."

Robinson nods her head in agreement. "It's amazing what a group of women can do — what even just one woman can do," she says.

 

Flipping through the old album shows page after page, year after year, of what 24 women can do. Photos show gift baskets, ladies addressing invitations, banquet tables decked out with hors d'oeuvres and mile-high tiered cakes from some yesteryear. One picture captures a blackboard menu from a fundraising dinner. The repast evidently was offered up some time ago, as main course dishes like "Channel catfish" and pork tenderloins went for 20 cents.

Robinson and Cunningham make a game out of remembering names. For Cunningham, a member for 25 years who's held every office at least once, it's a trip down memory lane. Robinson, a member for three years, was just installed at the club's vice-president in June. The two put their heads together to come up with maiden and married names for the women in the photos spread out before them. Sometimes it's the first names, though, that vex them slightly.

"Well, everybody is Mrs.-This-and-That," Robinson says with a smile. "Mrs. Harold Something Something. Mrs. John Somebody. Things were more formal, and that was just the respectful thing to say, so sometimes we have a hard time remembering just 'Carol.'" For Cunningham, having come up through 25 years of the club and its culture, recalling the husband's first name often prompts her memory of the ladies' maiden and surnames.

This album, Cunningham points out, is just one of many the 24 Club has in its 65 years of archives. The carefully kept photos preserve the club's history and tradition, evidencing years of this dedicated group of ladies' good works in the local community.

"It's in our constitution!" Cunningham asserts. "Our mission is and has always been very clear: We are here to serve the needy in our local community. Not organizations that can get grants or have other means of financial assistance," she adds. "We're talking about those who truly need help."

Aside from a few modernizations — color photos, of course, an updated manner that shies away from the formality of "Mrs. This-and-That," even a Web site (www.silver24club.com) that makes event information more accessible to the general public — the goals and works of the 24 Club remain unchanged these 65 years later. It could perhaps be summed up as, "Do good things for the community and shut up about it!"

"The tradition is to 'serve together in silence,'" Robinson notes.

Cunningham nods her head solemnly, knowingly. "It's not about getting credit or bragging," she adds. "It's why some people still don't know what we do or who we are. We just want to do these things, to help."

She mentions one of the club's bigger donation projects: furnishing rooms at Gila Regional Medical Center. Though the beds and equipment were quite expensive — pretty much consuming the club's entire budget that year — not so much as a small brass plaque commemorates the club's generosity. "We're not looking for pats on the back or praise or recognition of any kind," Cunningham says.

 

Good works large and small have been the driving force of this low-profile group of ladies since the 24 Club began. It was spawned out of the Pilot Club, a national community service group started in 1937 to serve local communities around the time of the Depression and World War II, which has become an international community service network today.

In the early 1940s, however, the 24 women of the Silver City chapter of the Pilot Club decided that charity begins at home. "We wanted to keep the money we were raising right here in Grant County," Cunningham says. "We made that decision and decided to be our own entity, so we did."

And though membership has remained capped at 24 ever since, the club did see expansion — well, in a way — in 1969. That's when the daughters and daughter-in-laws of the 24 members decided they wanted some outlet for community service, and started up the Junior 24 Club.

"There were 12 of them, and each got to ask one friend to join," Cunningham recalls. The two clubs continue to work together on projects, she adds.

Today's 24 Club meets monthly to plan events, consider requests for assistance and generally attend to club business. Cunningham makes clear that the group is a "working club, not a social club," though they do get together socially a couple of times a year and, of course, enjoy each others' company at meetings and during committee work sessions.

Since 1969, the club's main fundraising effort has been the annual local home tour held each spring. The flavor of the event has changed over the years, but the recipe has always been the same, Robinson says.

"Local homeowners showcase their homes and open them up for an afternoon to the ticket holders," she explains.

"And it's not just the biggest or grandest houses," Cunningham puts in. "One year we had the 'Hobbit House,' a little one-room place that's just darling and amazing to see. We had Murray Ryan's childhood home. These are interesting things that people want to see. And we've had some palatial homes, too."

Robinson adds that this year's tour was excitingly different. Dubbed "The Builder's Tour," the event included showcase homes erected by local builders. In addition to a bump up from printing 300 tickets to 400 — to accommodate vendors and their special clients — vendors paid to participate in the tour, making it the most financially successful ever, Robinson notes. The club is already working on next spring's tour, choosing homes and working with homebuilders and materials vendors.

There also are minor fundraisers here and there, Robinson says. Club members from both the senior group and the Juniors made and sold chile ristras, and have held Chinese auctions — perhaps today's version of that storied "Casino Night."

Cunningham laughs and rolls her eyes, recalling other fundraisers from the club's days of yore. Cocktail parties, she says, were a real high point — very fancy, a lot of fun and festivity. People gave a donation for their drinks, she says, and the ladies, of course, went all out with decorations and hors d'oeuvres.

The "Doll Project" also was an annual highlight. Club members took a number of dolls and created one-of-a-kind handmade outfits and accessories for them. The dolls would be displayed in downtown store windows, to whet the public's appetite, and then the dolls would be raffled off. "They brought in good money in those days!" Cunningham exclaims.

 

And where does all the money raised by these creative women go? "Well, our annual scholarships are a main focus," Cunningham says. The group awards one full-tuition scholarship to a young woman each year. The scholarship is to Western New Mexico University in Silver City, and includes books and other materials.

And the scholarship is just the beginning of the student's relationship to the women of the 24 Club. If she keeps up her GPA and excels, the group continues the financial assistance for all four years, through to graduation. If she has difficulties and wants mentoring, the club members make themselves available to help out.

The original scholarship was given in the name of Betty Cook, a charter member who passed away.

"And we are getting into an endowed scholarship now. This is an expansion," Robinson says. The new additional scholarship will be named after longtime club member Chris Dragmeister, who recently died.

Robinson adds, "Because of our wartime beginnings as an entity, the club still has a special concern for the vets." In the early days, members wrapped bandages and knitted hats for veterans. These days, members go out to assist at Fort Bayard and give socks to the veterans at Christmas.

She notes a particular project of the club back in the old days. Cunningham joins her in telling how the women of the 24 Club subsidized pediatricians to come up from the old Carrie Tingley Hospital, originally a polio hospital near Truth or Consequences, to care for local children. (In 1981, the hospital moved to Albuquerque.) The 24 Club women arranged the appointments and facilitated the intensive community health event. That type of work continues today, Cunningham says, through the club's willingness to drive people to doctor's appointments and even help with the bills. The club also has assisted community members with rent, utility bills, getting eyeglasses and traveling to hospitals and doctors' offices.

Though the club has a closed, limited membership, does not advertise its services and keeps such a low profile, Cunningham says there is never a problem with people finding the 24 Club to ask for assistance.

"Oh, there's never any shortage of requests," she says with a laugh. "People find us; they write a letter or call a member. We can always find deserving people in need."

And though it seems no one's going "honorary" anytime soon, there is still plenty of opportunity to offer support to the group in its good works, Robinson says. There are always those tickets to the Home Tour, for one thing.

"Donations are always welcome!" Robinson adds. "People can donate and know that it's going to a good place, a good local cause."

 

For more information on the 24 Club, see www.silver24club.com
or call 388-3414.

 

Senior editor Donna Clayton Lawder is not one of the 24.

 

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