Generations of Scouts and other youth groups that have held meetings, activities and dances at the Los Altos Youth Center owe a big thanks to the Federated Woman's Club of Los Altos.
The popular "LAYC dances," as we know them, would not exist were it not for the initiative of club members five decades ago who raised more than $60,000 for the construction of the youth center.
More than 70 club members and friends recognized this and other achievements during a Sept. 5 luncheon that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the club's formation. Helen Foerster of Los Altos, the last of the founding members, led the festivities. She had a major hand in organizing the program for last week's event, held at the Los Altos Golf & Country Club.
Foerster, still quite active in the club as program chairwoman, recalled the conversation she had with her neighbor Margaret Reimer that got it all started. "In 1957, the only women's organizations in town were the garden club and a junior woman's club," Foerster said. "She (Reimer) felt the town needed a well-organized club for women. ... She said we need a federated women's club. If you belong (to the General Federation of Women's Club, International), you would belong to a club with 11 million members in 58 countries all over the world. … We thought, 'OK, let's get going.'"
They sent out invitations and attracted 33 members for the first meeting, a fashion show fundraiser held Sept. 4, 1957. That first meeting also took place at the country club. Their number grew to approximately 150 the first year, then peaked at more than 200 members in the early 1960s. The Los Altos club currently has 54 members.
The climate was right for such a club. Those were days, Foerster recalled, when husbands went to work and wives were homemakers. Some of those housewives - ambitious, talented and energetic by nature - wanted to make a difference in the community beyond cleaning house.
The club proved a perfect vehicle. With its motto, "Nothing is impossible to a willing heart," group members plunged into community service, finding needs and helping in a variety of ways.
Funds raised from the local federated women have paid for furniture in the pediatric ward at El Camino Hospital, 23 benches in downtown Los Altos and glass cases and reference books for the Los Altos main library.
Donations have benefited the 4-H riding program for disabled youth and the Los Altos police K-9 program, among others. But the club's crowning achievement remains the youth center. Drive for the youth center "There was nothing here for the youth of the community," Foerster recalled. "The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts met in an old building (that the city condemned in the late 1950s)."
In a little more than a year, club members raised the necessary funds, recorded as $61,404 (although some claim the club raised more than $70,000) for the center, built on the city's civic center property located next to city hall. The most notable contributor was legendary singer-actor Bing Crosby, reputedly a friend of club member Anne Cullenward. Crosby pledged $10,000 of his own money, in addition to $5,000 donated through his Crosby Golf Tournament Foundation. Another $5,000 contribution came from C.E. Dawson, a former General Motors vice president, who headed the fundraising campaign.
Crosby was impressed by the fundraising effort and community support. He missed the April 30, 1960, groundbreaking ceremony only because of a prior commitment to his golf tournament. However, he sent a telegram congratulating residents on "a job well done." He reportedly sent the city of Los Altos a Christmas card every year until his death in 1977.
The youth center was completed in September 1960 and dedicated in January 1961. "I wish now they would start a senior center," Foerster quipped, to the agreeable laughter of fellow members at last week's event.
Shirley Welch, who has been with the club 49 years, remembers raising money for the youth center. "I had to organize a crew and go door to door," she said.
Federated women not only provided the spark and the fundraising, but they also proved tenacious in seeing their vision through. When the Los Altos City Council initially balked at the idea of building a new center, club members threatened to erect a Quonset hut at the Lincoln Avenue site currently occupied by the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce.
"Then they knew we meant business!" one member remarked at the time.
The youth center project involved virtually everyone in the Los Altos community before it was finished. Said member Fran Weiler some years later: "Nothing like it had ever happened before and has not happened since."
Red Garter Revue Club members proved resourceful in the range of fundraisers. These included bridge tournaments, fashion shows and house tours. Perhaps members' most memorable vehicle was something called "The Red Garter Revue," an entertainment extravaganza filled with members' singing and dancing.
Foerster smiled as she recently perused early-1960s photographs of club dancers doing the cancan.
"That was the show to end all shows," remarked Dale Briggs, who acted as master of ceremonies for those revues and told jokes between acts. He reprised his role at last week's event. He asked for a show of hands, and eight to 10 members acknowledged participation in those long-ago revues. Briggs' late wife, Audrey, was a club member.
Its obvious camaraderie, along with its community service, continues to be a big factor in club participation. Last week's golden anniversary affair was filled with smiles and laughter among longtime friends.
"You can tell right off we're a very sharing club," said club co-president Lillian Slavin. "Not my husband," shot back club member June Hansen. Guffaws filled the room.
Welch, who had moved up from Southern California, said she joined the club because "I didn't know anybody to go to lunch with. I have made all of my good friends there."
The veteran members agree that the club as it is now could benefit from younger membership.
"Most young girls have to work now," Welch said.
Last week's event featured congratulatory proclamations from Los Altos Mayor Curtis Cole, who was in attendance, and state Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, who was not. Cole, who said he has been to the youth center for numerous events, thanked the club "on behalf of the many generations" benefiting from the center.
Also on hand was a representative of the Loma Prieta district of the California Federation of Women's Clubs that includes the Los Altos club, who presented a 50-year pin to the members.
"It's been a fun 50 years," said Foerster, a resident of Los Altos since 1954. "I hope we go another 50 years."
The Federated Woman's Club of Los Altos meets the first Wednesday of each month, September through June, at Michaels at Shoreline restaurant in Mountain View. Meetings include lunch and a program. For more information or to join, call Foerster at 948-3553.