Jaycees, Jayceens honored for building Ronan Community Center
Before it took two incomes to raise a family and homes in the Ronan area could be purchased for about $15,000, volunteering was a way of life. One organization that promoted community involvement was the Jaycees and Jayceens.
The Jaycees began in the 1920s for the purpose of providing opportunities for young men (and later women, who became known as Jayceens), to build leadership skills through service to others. Notable Jaycees include Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, Bill Gates of Microsoft, former champion heavyweight boxer Larry Holmes, aviator Charles Lindberg, and President Ronald Reagan.
In the 1960s and 1970s Alice Gleason was a Jayceen and her husband Larry was a Jaycee. Alice recently commissioned a plaque in honor of her late husband, and all Jaycee and Jayceen volunteers for the work they did to build the Community Center in Ronan. To this day, the center is the largest community gathering site between Missoula and Kalispell and upon completion was named the Jaycee project of the year.
Notable Jaycee member Paul Weskamp came up with the idea for a community center in 1964. Weskamp, a graduate of University of Montana in Missoula and a star tackle for the Grizzlies, was also a Ronan coach. Following Weskamp’s early death from cancer at 34 in 1967, Ronan citizens established the Paul Weskamp Award, which is still given to the best offensive Grizzly lineman each year.
Jim Corcoran took on the community center project after Weskamp’s death. He however, soon timed out of the Jaycees at the ripe old age of 35, (the required age to retire from the organization), to become what was called an “exhausted rooster.” Retired Jayceens became “pooped pullets.”
In 1967 Larry Gleason became chairman of construction and finance for the Community Center project. According to Al Sampson, Larry Gleason was one of the most hardworking and quietest individuals he ever knew. “It was just the way he was,” Sampson said.
On Oct. 26, 1967, the Ronan Community Center project began with a fiesta and a carnival fundraiser put on by the Jaycees and local businesses. With a projected cost of $25,000, the Jaycees and Jayceens worked long and hard to provide the capital needed for the original 90 by 96 foot building.
According to Alice, Larry Gleason’s widow, “The Jayceens did a lot of work with bake sales, can collecting and many other projects to raise money.” There were 20-25 active members and the ladies did all the fundraisers including sending out letters to local residents requesting pledges. Pioneer Days and the rodeo were their main money makers each year.
“It was just the age of volunteering,” explained Joan Sampson. She said most women stayed home to manage their big families and made time to volunteer.
“We were very much a tight knit group,” Alice added. Those who are still around have been friends since the 60s.
Joan continued, “It was a very good community for us. Our impression is that it is one of the friendliest places we’ve ever lived … (if) it’s the cold or there were other troubles with power or plumbing, neighbors came to help us.”
The day Joan and her husband Al moved to Ronan, 26 inches of snow covered the ground and the weather was very cold. When they turned on the heat in their home a drive gear on the heat pump broke, leaving a watery mess and no heat. A plumber by the name of Mr. Mocabee came out on a Saturday afternoon and discovered they needed a part. Gambles Hardware opened on a Sunday to provide the needed part and Mocabee returned and fixed the pump the same day. Joan and Al couldn’t believe how friendly and helpful everyone was. “That’s the friendliness of this town,” Al commented.
On June 26, 1967, at 7:30 in the evening, (because everyone worked a regular job during the day), a ground-breaking ceremony for the soon-to-be Community Center took place. Then mayor of Ronan Norman Stedje, county extension agent Ed Bratton, and Jaycee president Dick Wunderlich shoveled the first chunks of dirt and were photographed for the local newspaper.
While the Jaycees managed and constructed the framing and exterior of the new building, Kicking Horse Job Corps completed the finish work on the interior of the building. The building had a kitchen, four meeting rooms, a large room for dancing and two restrooms. The first event to take place was a Jaycee district meeting in April of 1968 and a formal dedication took place in 1969. Those were busy times in Ronan as the high school and the hospital were also built during the same time frame.
The county currently provides most of the maintenance such as cleaning, painting, providing a new furnace, and other interior work. Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker said the county’s position is that the Community Center “is a huge community asset.”
Annually the center is used for the Lake County Fair, Pioneer Days, the Ag Appreciation Dinner and the Ronan Woman’s Club flea market generally held in the spring. Things have changed recently because of the pandemic but on average center is used for about 100 events a year. During peak season there’s an event every three days. The center and adjoining county fairgrounds are currently being utilized for Lights Under the Big Sky holiday festivities.
“Over the years that building has been used for so many activities,” said former Jayceen Monte Wunderlich, “It is just a blessing for those of us involved in the initial building process to see how really needed this building was in the little town of Ronan. Thanks to all of the Jaycees and Jayceens for seeing a great need and going forward to see it accomplished.”
The community center can be rented for $350 per day or $125 for four hours during the week. Money from rentals pays for power and heat and events are scheduled through the Lake County Extension Office. They can be reached at 406-676-8661 or 300 Third Ave. NW.
A commemorative plaque will be placed in the Community Center to honor the work of the Jaycees and Jayceens.
Alice thanks all who donated money for the memorial.