By Tara Kirkpatrick
“We were just a group of girls anxious
to do something helpful in the city in which we lived.”
Since these simple, elegant words were spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt more than a century ago, the Junior League has become a vibrant force in women’s leadership across the country.
The Junior League of Tucson celebrates a milestone this year – its 80th anniversary in shaping the city into what it is today.
“Our goal is to train women to be effective civic and community leaders, and our members learn board governance, volunteer management, fund development and other skills that make them effective leaders,” said Shelby MacDonald, JLT’s current president.
This anniversary has inspired one JLT member to write a book chronicling the league’s history, from its beginnings in post-Depression Tucson to today.
“It just seemed to me, as times have changed and the community has changed, many people may not know what a rich history the organization has,” said Emily Morrison, author of “Grand Dames & Great Causes: The Way we Were … A History of the Junior League of Tucson, 1933-2013.”
“For my mother, me and my daughter, it has brought lifelong friends and memories, and great training,” said Morrison, who added that success in her career is a direct result of league training, involvement and connections.
Morrison, chosen as one of the league’s 80 outstanding women in 80 years, spent much of last year with a team that included Carrie Durham and Angela DiFuccia, researching every issue of the league’s newsletters, “El Sarape” and “Las Noticias,” and historical records to compile the book, which was presented to members at a reception held last fall.
It all began in 1929, when Grace Bakewell called her friend Clara Hughes and asked her to help form a Junior League in Tucson. They formed a small group of charter members known as the Service Club of Tucson.
The women were required to start a community project before their application for membership in the national Junior League was accepted. They began a day nursery, then a lending library – funded by style shows, dances and a rummage sale.
When the Service Club of Tucson was accepted into the national league membership in February 1933, there were about 50 members. Today, there are 130 active and 350 sustaining members, MacDonald said.
“As has been the case in the nearly 300 communities where you will find a Junior League, Tucson league members are trained and dependable workers,” Morrison said. “We have saved historic buildings, filled a need, trained others and advocated for causes and legislative bills that affected all members of society.”
Indeed, the Junior League of Tucson’s all-encompassing work over eight decades has included setting up day care nurseries and nurse programs in the 1930s to working with the Fort Lowell Museum and the Red Cross in the 1960s to its current project, JLT C.A.R.E.S., to promote healthy aging.
Its list of projects over the years is vast, with virtually no charitable area left untouched within the Tucson community. Its meeting spots have comprised some of the city’s most historic landmarks, including the original El Conquistador and Santa Rita hotels.
The JLT joined with St. Luke’s in the Desert Board of Visitors in the late 1970s to open a boarding home for elderly low-income women that still operates today as St. Luke’s Home.
Just a few years later, it helped launch the Ronald McDonald House in Tucson. “The league provided the seed money to support the salary of the house manager for four years and operational money to sustain the house,” recalled Diana Sheldon, executive director for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona.
“As I walk through our doors each day, I am reminded that our story could not have begun without the league’s vision, leadership and support,” she said.
Among its lesser known contributions, the league opened the city’s first Well Baby Clinics in the 1930s to combat infant mortality. It helped restore La Cordova House at the Tucson Museum of Art, and members pitched in to refurbish the Temple of Music and Art. The Follies, a theatrical show starring league members that first started in 1950, raised thousands of dollars for the community.
The annual rummage sale – almost as old as the league itself – still raises as much as $30,000 to help fund its charities each year. For Ann McKenna, JLT’s president in 1971, it remains her favorite league memory. “We worked so hard and we made so much money,” she said.
Through the years, the league has wrestled with its image and purpose, as Morrison found while researching. Many newsletters included pleas that its members not lose passion for the league’s mission as it morphed from a social “hats and gloves” society to the group of modern professionals that holds the reins today.
“In the early years, no one was employed,” Morrison said. “Today, most everyone works full- or part-time, and these women still make time for meetings, training and community service. There is much to be admired. They have to be very organized and responsible.”
Celebrating 80 Years
“Here’s to 80 years of the best of women and the best of volunteering,” toasted JLT’s 2003 president Jennifer Casteix at the reception last fall. The gathering, co-chaired by Casteix and JLT’s 2010 president Mindy Griffith, capped off a celebratory year that began in March, when 80 outstanding sustainers were recognized for their work and dedication. Among them were names synonymous with the history of Tucson – Drachman, Dusenberry, Sundt, Levy and Murphy.
“Without the Junior League of Tucson, many of our most successful and influential community volunteers may have missed the opportunity to discover their passion for service,” remarked Jennifer Harris, JLT’s 2006 president. “Sustaining members of the JLT are sprinkled throughout Tucson non-profits, bringing with them volunteer training that makes those organizations stronger.”
At the reception, sustainers reminisced about league training that helped them re-enter the workforce after their children were grown.
“When I went to get my first job after staying home, my whole resume was JLT,” recalled Dee Ann Sakrison, JLT’s 1979 president. Agreed Linda Breck, JLT’s 1980 president, “If you had done work in the Junior League, it was accepted.”
Perhaps the league’s importance to Tucson may best be measured by imagining if it never existed – if Bakewell and Hughes never came together all those years ago.
“If there was no JLT, there might be no community advocacy, no community outreach, no women on nonprofit boards…no poised way for stay-at-home women to learn, train and give back, no way for working women to be connected to stay-at-home women, no forum to discuss ideas, pound out conflict and create resolution,” said Tiana Ronstadt, JLT’s 2001 president.
“If there was no JLT, women would not be where they are today – a vibrant, powerful, contributing part of our economy and our nation.”