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Serving Youth For Sixty Years

Today's youth are tomorrow future — how can we help?

On the evening of June 7 at Belle Haven Country Club members of the Alexandria Optimists Club gathered to mark a milestone — their 60th anniversary. But, even more remarkable two of their founding members were present. Lewis A. Stearman and Frank E. Mann Jr.

The club was founded on the premise of helping youth and it focused on troubled young males, according to past president Delbert Wilson. "This mission goes back to the early 1900s of Optimist International," Wilson explained. "For the last 50 years we have been the friends of youth. We no longer focus on boys only. Today we focus on youth in both Alexandria and the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County," he said.

Established on April 23, 1946, Alexandria Optimist Club is closely allied with the Alexandria Gazette. Stearman at the time was the editor working under Charles Carlin Jr., publisher and owner. "At that time our offices were at 317 King St. Charlie's office was upstairs and mine was downstairs," Stearman recalled. "One day in March 1946 he called down and asked me to come up to his office. That's where I found a group of some of Alexandria's most powerful citizens. They had decided to form an Optimist Club. They wanted the paper's support and I was given the assignment to organize the group," Stearman said. "It was a very exciting event to organize the club. We knew we were going to reach out and help young boys who needed guidance," he said. The first meeting was at the George Mason Hotel on North Washington Street. There were 39 charter members that included former Alexandria Mayor Frank Mann, according to Stearman. "It's amazing that it is still active and still reaching out. Although it was originally reaching out to boys it is now geared to help both boys and girls. It is the forerunner of the Boys and Girls Clubs," he said.

"Our goal is to serve the youth of the city. Although we were originally called "Friend of Boy" our focus today is on troubled youth — male and female," said Wilson.

"We call our selves the noonday club because we normally meet for lunch. We have sponsored the establishment of a second club here in Alexandria known as the ‘Sunrise Alexandria Optimists.’ They meet for breakfast," Wilson said

SOME OF THE programs undertaken by the local Optimists include:

* Oratorical contest for youths to age 16

* Essay contests with international themes for 10th, 11th and 12th graders

* Programs to assist senior high school students in cooperative programs involving both schooling and work

* Oratorical contest for the deaf and hard of hearing

"The deaf and hard of hearing contest was started by Dr. David Leekoff, a local dentist and member of the club," Wilson said.

Presently there are 40 members in the club. Two of those current members are Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper and her husband Dr. Jay Pepper.

He has been a member for more than 15 years. "It's a fun group with excellent programs. But best of all they live up to their name of being optimists," Vice Mayor Del Pepper said.

The organization's name stems from their creed, which is recited at the conclusion of each of their meetings. It states: "Promise yourself:

* To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind

* To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet

* To make all your friends feel that there is something in them

* To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true

* To think only of the best, to work only for the best and to expect only the best

* To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own

* To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future

* To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile

* To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others

* To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble."

Following the initial meeting, Henry W. Bendall, a prominent local automobile dealer was elected the club first president on May 7, 1946.

"One of the prime goals of the new club was to aid and encourage the development of youth in the firm belief that the giving of oneself in service to others will advance the well being of mankind, the community and the world," Stearman said.

"Today our club is still a vigorous ‘Friend of Youth’ organization that now encompasses the strength of both young men and young women to enhance the fulfillment of youth goals in our community. At this time, we need more than ever, to redouble our efforts to reach out to our youth and strive to keep self-esteem a vital part of their growth," Stearman said.

Two charter members of the club who remain active members are Former Mayor Frank E. Mann Jr., who served as president in 1949-50 and Lewis A. Stearman, who became a Life Member on May 28, 1952.