History of Optimist International
1900s – The Beginnings
As industrialization and urbanization brought many new problems to society, citizens began forming voluntary organizations to address the needs of their communities. In some areas, groups took the name “optimist club” to express their desire for a positive outlook in the face of all these problems. The first official Optimist Club was formed in Buffalo, New York, in 1911.
Impetus for a nationwide Optimist movement began when the Optimist Club of Indianapolis, Indiana, was formed in May 1916. Envisioning a nationwide organization, founders of the Indianapolis club moved ahead in the summer of 1916 to start Optimist Clubs in many other major cities.
These clubs quickly grew to more than 100 members each. As a result, a national conference of the American clubs took place in 1917 in Indianapolis.
1919 – The Founding of Optimist International
Times were good. World War I had been fought and won and spirits were high in America. It was an ideal time for the birth of Optimism. The association of clubs that is known today as Optimist International was formed on June 19, 1919, when representatives of 11 clubs held a convention in Louisville, Kentucky, and adopted the name International Optimist Club. During the convention, William Henry Harrison, a descendent of the ninth president of the United States bearing the same name, was elected the first International President of Optimist international.
Over the next three years, the organization grew to 49 clubs and 4,000 members.
1920s – A Full-fledged Organization is Formed
In October 1920, the first edition of The Optimist magazine was published. Each of the 27 clubs was asked to report in at least once a month with news of their club.
In 1922, the Optimist Creed was adopted as the official creed of the organization. Written by Christian Larson, the creed was originally published under the title “Promise Yourself” in 1912. Optimists in California found the Optimist spirit well-expressed in the 10-line statement and pushed to have it adopted organization-wide. The wife of Los Angeles Optimist James V. Westervelt saw the item in a newspaper and clipped it for her husband. After publishing it in his club’s bulletin, Westervelt and other Los Angeles Optimists encouraged other California clubs to use the creed. Soon after, the creed’s popularity grew.
In August 1922, the first official emblem of Optimist International was developed and adopted. The emblem consisted of a youngster with a beaming countenance and the words “International Optimist Club.” Along with the smiling face appeared another symbol. It had a sun in its center and the words “Friendship, Sociability, Loyalty, Reciprocity” around it as a border. The emblem can be found on page 35 in Of Dreams and Deeds.
From the beginning, Optimist Clubs directed major efforts toward youth service. As a result, in 1923, the motto “Friend of the Delinquent Boy” was chosen, setting the course of the organization. The motto was introduced by Dr. Hartloft, a medical examiner in Evansville, Indiana, who became a community leader when he served as past president of the Big Brother movement.
In 1924, it was voted by the convention delegates that the Optimist International motto be revised to “Friend of the Boy.”
In 1924, the first organization-wide youth service program was established with the chartering of Junior Optimist Clubs. Its purpose was to instill the value of volunteering in young boys. The idea of creating youth clubs was developed in 1920 by Milwaukee Optimist Henry Scarborough, who was well-known in his community in vocational guidance and personnel relations. After gathering a group of young boys together, they agreed that since the Optimists served as the group’s sponsor, they should call themselves “Junior Optimists.”
During the 1924 convention in Milwaukee, the Junior Optimist Club idea really began to spread. The delegates voted the right of Optimist International to charter Junior Optimist Clubs everywhere, with an Optimist Club as its sponsor. The idea spread like wildfire and right before World War II, there were 42 Junior Optimist Clubs formed with several hundred youth members.
Also in 1924, history was made when the Optimist Club of Toronto, Ontario, was formed, the first club outside the United States. Four months later, the second Canadian Optimist Club was chartered in Hamilton, about 40 miles west of Toronto.
In 1928, an organization-wide Oratorical Contest was started for the Junior Optimist Clubs. Through the years, its purpose has been to provide a valuable self-improvement activity and scholarship program for youth. Today, this remains the oldest and most well-known program of Optimist International.
In 1929, the organization grew to 117 Optimist Clubs and 8,000 members.
On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed and so began the Great Depression. Optimists immediately recognized the much-needed philosophies of Optimism.
1930s – Meeting the Challenge
During the early 1930s, as a result of the Great Depression, membership dropped significantly. Despite the dropping numbers, Optimists continued to increase their youth service, tripling the number of youths reached. In fact, there were twice as many Junior Optimist Clubs in 1931 as there had been in 1929.
In 1933 came Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, bringing with them the National Recovery Administration. Seeing their role as good citizens, many of the Optimist Club members supported the NRA.
As a result of diminishing membership and a shortage of dues, in 1936, the Life Membership Plan was introduced at the Fort Worth convention as a means of gaining some ready cash with which to work and not have to pay back.
At the turn of the decade, membership in Optimist International had climbed to 11,129 members, more than twice what it had been just six years earlier.
1940s – The War Years
During the 1940s, World War II took force and both United States and Canadian citizens recognized the need for civilian support. But what could they do? Before many months of war production had passed, it became obvious that normal peacetime supplies of scrap metal would soon be exhausted in the manufacture of arms and munitions. The United States called upon its citizens to salvage 17 million tons of scrap metal. To do their part, Optimist Clubs quickly joined forces to start the official Optimist Scrap Metal Drives.
Following the first campaign, an average of 25 Optimists per club worked to obtain the scrap and a total of about 250 clubs pushed local campaigns. The end result was an average of 12.5 tons of vital material per club. Optimist International’s concerted effort in this and many subsequent home-front campaigns during World War II is considered by many as the organization’s highest achievement. Optimist International was awarded a special citation from the War Production Board for its achievements in collecting thousands of tons of sorely needed scrap metal and rubber.
In Canada, there was growing concern for the needs of children living overseas near the fighting. Out of this concern arose a new project. Based on the conviction that children are entitled to a few little luxuries and the war had recently been depriving them of these necessities, the Optimist Club of Welland, Ontario, created the Chocolate Fund. And the Optimists contributed generously. By the war’s end, British children were delivered more than two million bars of chocolate – the only sweet they knew during 10 years of war and famine.
Also during the war, millions of dollars were raised in Optimist-sponsored war bond drives.
During the years of World War II, no International Conventions were held because of travel restrictions and the need for Optimists to remain on the job till the war was won. Four Wartime Conferences were substituted for conventions to carry on the administrative work of the organization.
Surprisingly, membership did not drop during the war years. As more and more men discovered the value of community service, especially during the war, membership increased from 13,000 in 1941 to 16,000 in 1945.
1950s – Launching New Programs
During the 1950s, Optimist Clubs were becoming increasingly well-known for their efforts and youth service. It was also a decade in which many new programs were born.
In April 1953, the first international Bike Safety Week took place, with its purpose being to inform youngsters of the safe operation of bikes and inspire safety habits. This program continues today to be one of the more prominent programs of the organization.
The 1950s were also a time in which Optimists recognized that there were kids who needed their help. In San Antonio, a young clergyman called the attention of his Optimist Club to the homeless and neglected boys sleeping under bridges and on the streets. This led to the start of many boys’ homes throughout the country. Some of the more famous optimist-sponsored boys’ homes were the Optimist Home for Boys in Los Angeles and Boysville in San Antonio.
In 1955, the 1,000th Optimist Club was chartered.
In 1957, Optimist International celebrated the first observance of Youth Appreciation Week on an international basis to recognize and commend children and teenagers who are too often given a bad rap.
Youth Appreciation Week was created by late Optimist T. Earl Yarborough, who developed the program after recognizing the fact that youngsters are almost never publicly praised and commended. With the help of two fellow Optimists, Yarborough worked to promote the idea of a Youth Appreciation Day. His efforts paid off and his home state of North Carolina observed the very first Youth Appreciation Day on May 22, 1955.
The following year, Optimist International scheduled a Youth Appreciation Week program on a pilot basis in five states and one Canadian province. Acceptance and enthusiasm of the program led to the first international Youth Appreciation Week in fall 1957.
Because of Earl Yarborough’s many community efforts and his work in creating Youth Appreciation Week, a lifetime achievement award in Optimist service was named in honor of him.
1960s – A Decade of Great Expansion
In 1960, a full-fledged campaign was launched to work against pornography reaching school-age children through the family mailbox.
In 1963, the Optimist Youth Clubs program was expanded to include Octagon Clubs for high school students.
In 1964, the Stay in School program was created to help reduce the number of high school drop-outs.
In 1965, a new program was undertaken in an effort to combat apathy toward crime and the dispensation of justice. With the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Optimist International began Respect For Law Week. One of the more visual aspects of this program is the Optimist International Respect For Law Citation, which recognizes citizens for outstanding service at a crime scene by aiding police.
In 1968, Optimist International celebrated the organization’s Golden Anniversary convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the very first convention in 1919. In celebration of the organization’s 50th anniversary, Optimist International participated in the famous Tournament of Roses parade on New Year’s Day.
In 1969, membership topped the 100,000 mark.
1970s – Rapid Growth
In 1971, Optimist International grew to almost 3,000 clubs and 105,000 members.
At the 1971 convention, it was announced that the International Board had approved the Optimist International Foundation and that all necessary legal steps had been taken to put it into business. The purpose of the Foundation is to operate exclusively for the charitable, literary or educational purposes of Optimist International.
During the 1971 convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the International Board approved the Tri-Star Basketball Program for boys, known today as the Tri-Star Sports Program. The first year of the Tri-Star competition saw more than 300 clubs and 75,000 young participants.
On November 5, 1971, President Nixon signed the first Youth Appreciation Week Proclamation declaring the week of November 8 as the official Youth Appreciation Week. Representing the youth of the time, 21 youngsters gathered around President Nixon for the signing. He said to them: “I would say to you this is an exciting time to be alive.” He commended them and challenged them to be leaders for the next generation and to “build a compassionate world.”
In 1972, Optimist International’s motto was changed to “Friend of Youth” to reflect service to both girls and boys.
Also in 1972, the 3,000th Optimist Club was founded.
In 1972, society began to realize environmental issues were increasingly becoming a concern. The need for clean air, pure water, uncluttered streets, and proper disposal of trash became the focus and the result of a new Optimist program titled L-I-F-E – Living Is For Everything.
Also in 1972 was the launch of AVOID, a new program to combat syphilis and gonorrhea. With the creation of this program, Optimist International became the first service club organization to address this type of need.
In 1978, the International Board of Directors voted to sponsor one the most prestigious junior golf events in the world, now known as the Junior World Golf Championships. Today, Optimist International sponsors its own tournament, independent from Junior World, known as the Optimist International Junior Golf Championships. More than 5,000 junior golfers ages 10 to 18 compete in qualifying tournaments at the club and district level in hopes of making it to the international tournament.
In 1978, the Help Them Hear program was rolled out, giving many clubs a chance to do something for hearing-impaired youth and adults. The program was designed so that clubs would implement programs to heighten public awareness of the problems associated with hearing impairment, provide local testing facilities and provide corrective and educational techniques for those people with hearing impairments.
1980s – A Time of Change
In August 1980, 48 residents of Kingston, Jamaica, were officially installed as Optimists. The Optimist Club of Kingston immediately became part of the Florida district, Jamaica’s closest Optimist neighbor. This was the organization’s first step in a successful Caribbean expansion project.
In 1983, a new and special Optimist program for high school students was created – the Essay Contest. With this program, students are asked to write a 400- to 500-word essay on a specific subject. After club and district competitions, winners advance to the international contest. After 1988, scholarships were awarded to the top three international winners.
During the 1980s, the most prevalent social issue around was the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Optimist International, in concern for youth during this time, adopted the Just Say No substance abuse prevention program in 1985. As part of the Just Say No program, Optimists created a chicken mascot named “Mr. Resister” (chicken being an acronym of Cool, Honest, Intelligent, Clear-headed, Keen, Energetic and Not interested in drugs). Although Optimists were one of the many supporters of Just Say No, they were perhaps the most active with more than 1.5 million children already reached in the first two years of the program.
In 1987, concerns had grown about possible legal challenges to men-only provisions in the organization and the Optimist International Board of Directors responded by voting to admit women to the membership.
Also in 1987, statistics revealed that Optimist efforts reached five million young people each year.
In 1988, the Optimist International Board of Directors established the Optimist International Foundation of Canada, to provide a vehicle for tax-deductible contributions by Canadian members.
In 1988, the organization recognized the rapid growth of Optimist Youth Clubs, which had grown to 30,000 members in 1,000 Junior Optimist and Octagon Clubs, and formed its own international organization – Junior Optimist Octagon International.
1990s – Looking Toward the Future
In 1992, a new and innovative program, titled Optimists in Action Day, was introduced as a pilot program to unite Optimists and other volunteers in the community in a single day of community or youth service.
Also in 1992, Optimist International took a step further in its substance abuse efforts by introducing the “get real!” anti-steroid program. This program reached schools all over the world and taught youth to become healthy and fit through nutrition and other natural means, not through steroids.
Twelve years after the first club was built, Jamaica was awarded its own district. With 25 clubs in Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua, the Jamaica District was born in 1992, with Theodore Golding serving as Charter Governor.
In August 1993, the first ever Jamaica Convention took place in Ocho Rios, St. Ann, Jamaica. Just a few years – and several new clubs – later the Jamaica District officially became the Caribbean District on Oct. 1, 1996. The district had 38 clubs. Optimism sprinkled into several new island nations, including Saint Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla and Saint Lucia.
In 1998, the islands of Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago were added to the Caribbean District, while Cayman, Barbuda, Tortola and the Turks and Caicos became part of the district the following year.
In 1993, Alpha Clubs created for grades one through four became an official part of Junior Optimist Octagon International.
On June 5, 1993, Optimist Clubs all over the world gathered for the first annual Optimists in Action Day and made a difference in their communities. Clubs painted homes of the elderly and underprivileged, collected canned goods, cleaned parks and streets, and conducted many other community service projects.
Later that summer, Optimist International kicked off its 75th anniversary year at the 75th International Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the site of the first and 50th conventions.
In 1996, Optimist International received corporate backing from Morton International for a new safety awareness program – Always Buckle Children in the Backseat (ABC). Optimists embraced the ABC program, making it one of the most successful programs in history. Members visited thousands of merchants, hospitals, car dealerships, childcare agencies and any other types of businesses frequented by parents and childcare givers. Optimists provided educational pamphlets informing the proper way to restrain children in cars that contain passenger-side airbags.
In 1997 ESPN covered the Optimist International Junior Golf Championships, making Optimist International the first service club organization to ever have a worldwide event televised.
In 1998, Optimist International’s float won the “National Trophy” in the Tournament of Roses Parade for best depicting the overall theme of “Hav’n’ Fun.”
In July 1999, Optimists celebrated the 75th anniversary of Optimists Clubs in Canada. The International Convention in Toronto provided a perfect location to give tribute to the many Canadians who have become and remain members of the organization.
Optimism for the New Millennium
The turn of the century was a turning point in the organization’s storied history. Following the International Convention in Reno, Nevada, the inaugural Optimist International Junior Bowling Championships (OIJBC) took place there. Junior bowlers battled for the right to be called “Optimist Champion.”
In July 2001, Optimists found themselves seated in the White House, pledging to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s goal to mentor one million children. Optimist International President Bob Garner called the meeting “yet another sterling example of ‘Optimists Bringing Out the Best in Kids.’”
Also in 2001, Optimist International introduced the Childhood Cancer Campaign to provide awareness and support of children battling cancer and the challenges their families face. In 2004, the organization made a $1 million commitment to Johns Hopkins to underwrite a research focus.
Optimist International signed up the first Friend of Optimists in 2005. This class of membership allows individuals to show their support of the organization’s mission if they are unable to commit as a traditional club member.
Also in 2005, the Optimist Junior Golf Program expanded to include the Optimist International Tournament of Champions for top-performing junior golfers ages 14 to 18.
In 2006, Junior Optimist Octagon International introduce the JOOI of Reading program.
Less than two decades after Optimist International welcomed women as members in the organization, Ronnie Dunn became the first female International President in October 2006. Her year in office was followed by Theo W. Golding of Kingston, Jamaica, who became the first International President from outside Canada and the United States.
With children being introduced to the internet at earlier and earlier ages, the organization began an Internet Safety program in 2008 to keep children educated and safe from online predators.
In an effort to expand and further promote Optimist International’s most well-known program, the first Optimist Oratorical World Championships took place at Saint Louis University in 2016.
There are high hopes and expectations for the future of Optimism. Growth and maturation will occur as the organization moves closer to its centennial. From the beginnings of its youth service, the organization has held onto its Optimistic philosophy – to think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best.
For a more detailed history of Optimist International, please consider ordering the book Of Dreams and Deeds from one of Optimist International’s suppliers.