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September 18, 1988|SYBIL BAKER | Times Staff Writer

For decades, upstanding men who made good have found ways to do good through service clubs. They became Lions, Optimists, Moose, Elks and Shriners. They joined the Kiwanis, the Rotary Club, the Jaycees. There were charity raffles and pancake breakfasts, baseball teams to sponsor and youth homes to support.

The clubs were called to order at coffee shops and restaurants, civic buildings, Grange halls and hotels. A meeting was an event where an executive or merchant could make contacts, where a budding politician could try out his oratory, where it was OK to be gung-ho.

During the past 20 years, though, the clubs have fallen on hard times. The Jaycees, a club that has always limited its members to people from age 21 to 36, saw its membership drop sharply. The decline was so marked at older clubs that the average age of members began to exceed the number of members in attendance.

But recently, a mild resurgence has occurred. Some chapters report a slight gain in membership, and say the average age of members has dropped a year or two. To encourage the trend, the Lions Club plans to institute pilot clubs designed to attract younger members.

Among other reasons for the revival: Membership is no longer exclusively male. At the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, women--first admitted in the early 1970s--now constitute 40% of the membership; four of the past seven presidents have been women.

Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions began to admit women in July of last year in response to court orders and municipal regulations. And since then, a group of women founded the Asia AM Lions Club in Alhambra.

The appeal of the service club is still limited, however.

Some women, viewing the welcome mat as too new, are walking on by. "I'm not entirely comfortable with any organization with a history of eliminating any minority group," says Claudia Carver, 34, a partner at the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker.

Other women and men--especially those under 40--consider the service clubs unnecessary. Organizations such as the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. and the Advertising Club of Los Angeles, for example, fulfill their need to network.

Most in this age group, however, say their jobs make attending a service club impossible. Walt Danheiser, 34, a top salesman for Prudential insurance, says he customarily works out of his North Hollywood office "from 8:30 in the morning till 11 p.m.," adding, "I don't even take time out for lunch."

Club chapters in the Southland are as varied as the communities they serve, but differ from each other more by location than affiliation. Rotary and Lions clubs in downtown Los Angeles are more alike than the downtown Lions and their brother Lions in Tarzana.

Members assume an obligation to attend the meetings, which usually means at least two hours a week in the bigger chapters, and to participate in the club's causes. Each club in each community establishes its own dues schedule.

Here is a look at three Southland chapters of the Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions:

Rotary Club of Los Angeles

This is the Cadillac of service clubs in Los Angeles. The atmosphere is one of silken geniality.

Many of these Rotarians are the presidents or CEOs of large companies; the average age is 55.

Many also belong to private clubs, such as the Jonathan Club and exclusive country clubs. Their salaries, "with the exception of a few people from the schools or Salvation Army, you've got to figure 75 or 80 (thousand) as a minimum," says Tom Sullivan, 54, president of Jefferson House Cos.

Prospective members must be what Sullivan, a former club president, terms "significant" people. "A vice president, at the very least," he says. "And he needs to be of the main branch, not of some regional branch."

Existing members "proffer" prospective ones. After that, "we have a shepherd who does a little homework on them," he says. "Do they have the financial wherewithal? Is their company important?"

Eminence and affluence are not the only qualifications, however, because occupations are limited by quota. "We have lawyers coming out our ears," says Don Swenson, managing director of the club.

Although the need for contacts tends to recede with the hairline, Victor L. Walch, a lawyer and the club president, says a "substantial amount" of business is generated.

"We have architects here who work with contractors here, attorneys here who render service to a variety of firms--banks, insurance companies," he says. Nevertheless, Walch seems to speak for many when he says "just the need to be involved" in community service brought him into Rotary.

"Most people in this club are at a level high enough so they're not here hustling business," says financial consultant Jerry Niemeyer. "Most of us, we did that before we got the gray in our hair."

There are 135 Rotary Clubs in Los Angeles County, representing about 3,300 members; the downtown club has 700 members, of whom 10 are women, officials said.

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