Editor’s Note: The club started out as Lawrence Boys’ Club, according to old newspaper accounts. In 1988, it changed to Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence.
More than 35 years ago, the Lawrence Journal-World wrote that inside the Lawrence Boys’ Club there was “enough random energy to make an exologist’s heart glow.”
Then, the club allowed only boys, was housed in a old dance hall downtown, had enough room for just 55 boys and cost $1 a year to join.
A lot has changed. Girls have been a part of the club since 1986, the organization serves about 1,400 children a day across 12 sites in the city, and costs most students $20 a week.
What hasn’t changed is the energy, which was obvious last week from the sound of children’s voices, which blasted off the brightly colored walls of the Boys and Girls Club’s main site, 1520 Haskell Ave.
“It’s done a lot of good over the years,” said Kurt von Achen, who was one of the club’s early board members.
On Thursday, the club will celebrate its 40th anniversary at the annual Youth of the Year Celebration. The public event will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Ave.
Bobby Lee’s dream
The need for a boys’ club grew out of the turmoil of 1970, according to one of the club’s founders, Bob Wells.
Lawrence was in chaos that year as race riots erupted at Lawrence High School, a nighttime curfew was enforced, and two teenage boys, one white and one black, were shot and killed in the streets of Lawrence.
In the aftermath, Bobby Lee, a shy young Kansas University plumber who was a member of the Lawrence Jaycees, began a crusade to create a place that would take youths off the streets and give them something to do after school.
The concept was embraced by other Jaycees, a group made up by many of the city’s movers and shakers. By 1972, a Lawrence Boys’ Club board had formed, elected its first president and started a $20,000 fund drive.
“Bobby never let up,” Wells said.
The first obstacle was finding a place to house the club on its meager budget. By fall 1972, the board had picked Ecke Hall at the corner of 10th and Massachusetts streets. The space was on the third floor of the building, which housed the Duckwall’s store below. It was owned by the United Methodist Church and had once been a teen lounge run by the church. Before that, it was a skating rink and dance hall.
“The floor up there was, at the time, mounted on springs. It hadn’t been used for so long that when you walked across the floor it squeaked rather badly,” von Achen said. “Well, it didn’t squeak for long after the boys had been in there.”
Soon, the board began moving in equipment for ceramics, leather crafting, painting, woodworking, cooking and chess. There was a library for studying and counseling, a weight room, pingpong tables, basketball goals, shuffleboard, wrestling mats and racing car tracks.
On March 18, 1974, the club opened. KU and Chicago Bears football legend Gale Sayers was there to greet the boys. Mike Dusenberry, a former Ohio State University football player, was hired as full-time director. In the first two months, 450 boys had enrolled.
“We knew there was a need, and we knew there was a place for it. We jumped in with more faith than anything else,” von Achen said.
From there, the Boys’ Club always seemed to need more space and money.
“It was always a struggle,” von Achen said.
In the early years, volunteers and members would drive around town picking up recycled paper, which they would sell to raise money for equipment. If the building needed repairs or improvements, the board would hold work days to fix it.
It didn’t take long for the Boys’ Club to outgrow the space in downtown Lawrence. In the early 1980s, the board set a new goal of raising $150,000 to move to the Mustard Seed building at 500 E. 23rd St.
In 1986, 8-year-old Tamika Walker became the first girl to join the Boys’ Club. That year, the United Way provided extra funding to allow girls to attend summer programs. A year later, the club was renamed to the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, and girls became members.
While some of the boys in the club were skeptical of allowing females to join, the girls fit in just fine.
“We’d been told that you can do that, but when you do, you will find the girls’ number grows nicely, but the boys membership goes in the dumps,” von Achen said. “The nice thing about Lawrence is we never lost a boy.”
The organization was ready to expand again, and in 1988 it moved to what was the Odd Fellows Hall, 1520 Haskell Ave.
Expanding to schools
Over the years, the Boys and Girls Club has had about a half-dozen directors — each one better than the one before, Wells said. But the organization’s biggest expansion came under its current director, Janet Bremby.
In the late 1990s, the board was searching for a new director and was underwhelmed with the applicants. Bremby, who was managing facilities for the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, was among those on the search committee.
“Janet said, ‘You know, I would do that job for that kind of money.’ We looked at her and said, ‘Well resign from the committee, and we will interview you,’” von Achen said. “She has been without a doubt the best hire I have ever been associated with. She’s done miracles.”
Under Bremby, the organization landed federal grants to fund after-school and other programs.
“It was a big deal for the board,” long-time board member Carl Kurt said. “It was safe to say no. But we took a gamble and made the decision to expand.”
Today, the Boys and Girls Club works closely with Lawrence public schools to provide after-school programming in 10 elementary schools and at East Heights. The club also runs a teen center at the main site.
United Way President and CEO Erika Dvorske said while the program provides educational opportunities to children, it also gives parents a peace of mind.
“It allows for parents across the community to say ‘OK’ and take a deep breath because they know (their children) are in a good place, and they can feel good about that,” Dvorske said. “And that crosses socio-economic boundaries.”
The Boys and Girls Club is bracing for another shift in direction. Bremby will leave the organization soon to join her husband, Rod Bremby, who left Kansas to head Connecticut’s Department of Social Services. As for the future of the Boys and Girls Club, Bremby’s replacement has been selected and is expected to be announced soon.
The founding members continue to have visions of growth.
“Some of us old-timers would love to get a gym. But there is no plan right now to get one,” Kurt said.
On Thursday, the Boys and Girls Club will honor its annual youth of the year and recognize members of the founding board. There will be one person noticeably absent from the celebration. In 1976, just two years after the Boys’ Club opened, Lee, who was the impetus for the organization, died at age 31.
“Bobby Lee, it was his dream. He is the one who kept pushing. To see what it is now — so many people have been involved, so many great memories. I don’t think he would believe it,” Wells said. “He would be absolutely elated.”