Fifty Years of Vision and Service

The Kalispell Sunriser Lions Club prepares to celebrate its golden anniversary with a search for new members

By Madeleine Lamon
Les Tinseth, incoming president of the Kalispell Sunrisers Lions Club, stands outside his office on June 29, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

In the 1950s, Les Tinseth took a trip with his parents to visit Washington. He never made it to their final destination.

Instead, he became enamored with Glacier National Park and decided to stay in Kalispell, even if it meant waiting a year for his car to arrive from Minnesota.

Within 15 years, the young entrepreneur had not only established his own insurance business, but had also served as the inaugural president of the Kalispell Sunriser Lions Club.

Founded in 1917 by a Chicago businessman, Lions Club International is a service organization, which has prioritized aiding the visually impaired for much of its history.

After a short stint volunteering with a different organization, in 1963 Tinseth joined the Kalispell Lions. This group was just one of two chapters in Kalispell at the time, the other being the Evergreen Lions.

In late 1967, Don Aadsen, a local Lion who would serve as the District Governor, approached Tinseth with his plans to establish a new club. Aadsen wanted Tinseth to serve as the charter president.

“The governor hollered, I said yes, and we started a club,” he quipped.

In March 1969, the group received its official charter at a ceremony in the Evergreen School gymnasium with Tinseth as the group’s first leader.

Donning rich purple vests adorned with yellow rising suns, the 36 charter members met Mondays at 6:30 a.m. — the time that they still meet today — to discuss the ways in which they could best serve the local youth.

One of their first projects involved raising funds for the Timberettes, a pioneering track and field program in which two charter Sunrisers, Neil Eliason and Neil Hart, were heavily involved.

Eliason formed the Timberettes in 1961. As it gained notoriety, the Sunrisers stepped in to help raise money for the competitors’ uniforms and travel expenses largely by painting address numbers on curbs and asking for donations, Tinseth recalled.

Over the years, the group has hosted a number of other colorful fundraising projects, including selling cherries and fireworks and hosting the long-standing Firecracker Tournament in cooperation with the Pee Wee Baseball Association. Mike Wood, the Sunriser chairman of this year’s tourney, noted that the group stopped selling the lucrative firecrackers after a member pointed out the potential hazard they posed to eyesight.

The funds raised by the group have benefitted a variety of organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Coats for Kids, as well as scholarships. Fifty years after chartering the Sunriser Club, Tinseth is preparing to once again lead the group with a focus on new members.

Recently, the group launched a new eyesight-screening program for local students. Monte Weisser, the Sunriser secretary and treasurer who transferred to the chapter in 1998, said members have screened more than 9,600 children in the past school year alone.

While the group will continue to provide for the community, multiple Lions emphasized members’ additional focus on publicity and recruitment for the upcoming year.

“The world changes,” Weisser said. “We’d like to have the new members bring new ideas and new ways of doing things.”

Weisser explained that the group hopes to host a local recruitment drive as well as a meet-and-greet event to connect with local business employees.

Whitefish Lions President Greg Shaffer, who recently formed a Leo’s Club in partnership with Whitefish High School, explained the importance of attracting new membership to service organizations, noting that the Whitefish Lions Club was reinstated nine years ago after being shut down due to lack of participation.

“If you take the history of that, how a club can dismember from a lack of membership — that’s why it’s so important to get these young people involved in these service groups,” Shaffer said.

The Sunriser Club chartered a Leo’s Club in 1969 for Flathead Valley Community College students. The group, Tinseth said, was shut down a few years later due to large amounts of turnover in membership.

Optimistic about the upcoming year and the Sunriser legacy, Weisser wondered why the group lacked publicity in the past.

“I don’t know how we’re such a well-kept secret,” he said.

For more information on the Sunriser Lions Club call (406) 871.5458 or email sunriserlions@gmail.com.

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