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Still Saying No After All These Years

Alcohol: Its numbers have dwindled, but its mission hasn't changed: After 122 years, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union continues to educate about drinking and drug taking. Its convention starts Sunday.

August 02, 1996|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union opens its annual convention in Indianapolis on Sunday. As usual, they are not expecting a crowd.

"I thought you died years ago," Paul Scott hears people say about the union.

Scott--a 48-year-old registered nurse from Glendale and one of 20 honorary men in the 140-member Highland Park chapter--looks forward to the week in Indianapolis: the lectures on social service, the tour of the city, the intercollegiate oratory competition on temperance, the gathering to honor this year's poster and essay contest winners, whose topic can be alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

A new event will be the award ceremony for the best sermon on temperance. Already the buzz is that first prize will go to an 83-year-old minister from Kentucky.

But the climax of the convention is always presidents' night. Chapter heads, dressed in traditional white, will parade through the ballroom of the Adams Mark Hotel, carrying their state flags.

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What was once an army of prohibitionists, 400,000 strong, has dwindled to a small but feisty campaign of 20,000 or so nationwide. Most members are senior citizens, says national President Rachel Kelly, 71, who refers to one chapter leader as "a younger woman" in her 50s.

True to tradition, these crusaders may be elderly but they are not easy.

Iron-willed on the subject of young people and drink, they continue to fight for total abstinence from alcohol and drugs for children as well as adults, just as the union has since it was founded in 1874.

The idea for a temperance group came about a year earlier in Hillsboro, Ohio, when the townswomen got together and decided to close down the saloons. Their husbands were spending too much time and money there, and their drinking was the source of family problems, explains Michael Vitucci, the union's national press director. To get the job done, they used the only weapon available.

"Those women got down on their knees and prayed," says Kelly, who talks about the group's first years as if she'd been there. "At the time they had no other source of help. The government certainly was not behind them."

The women of Hillsboro were so successful they decided to organize. At a gathering in Lake Chautauqua, near Buffalo, N.Y., they met with other like-minded women and named Annie Wittenmyer their first president. Wittenmyer operated a military kitchen during the Civil War and was known for her talent as an organizer.

Carry Nation, the notorious social reformer, was an early union member. She stood outside saloon doors singing Christian hymns with her sisters in the struggle, who always carried umbrellas as protection against the dishwater tossed from unwelcoming barroom doors.

But the most highly honored elder is Frances Willard, president from 1879 until her death 19 years later. Willard was president of the Evanston College for Ladies, and later dean of women at Northwestern University. She was determined to take the liquor industry by storm and to make education her arsenal. In so doing she set a course for the future from which the union has not strayed.

"Frances was considered a radical," Kelly says. "I don't object to being called radical either. We'd have to be--we're associated with the most unpopular cause in the world."

Not really. Getting kids off drugs, including alcohol, is a central concern these days, with highly visible groups such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and Alateen joining the cause.

The Temperance Union, though, has no slick packaging, marketing program, catchy acronym or cash for TV commercials. They do things the old-fashioned way.

Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, educating children about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs has been union members' top priority.

The union has its own publication arm, Signal Press, which sends out pamphlets to public schools across the country. Some colleges, including the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy, still subscribe to WCTU literature.

Beyond the schools, the union supports a few summer camps for abused children and homes for transients as well as for unwed mothers.

Finances for all these activities are limited. WCTU President Kelly says members are the chief source of contributions, and dues are only $10 per year. "We want everyone to be able to afford to join," she says.

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Men have always been welcome in the group, although they cannot vote or hold elected office.

"I first met them at their Pomona fair booth," Scott recalls of the start of his 12-year association with the group. He now helps out at the WCTU booth at the Los Angeles County Fair each September.

From the beginning, the union has included among its members any children and teens who pledge to abstain. Of the dozens of die-hard leaders who oversee these groups, Lois Addy is a legend. At 103, Addy runs a program for 6- to 12-year-olds, as well as a retirement home near her house in Saluda, S.C.

"She always says, 'I don't live in the old folks home,' " explains Vitucci. "She's not ready for that."

Jean Lillig of Des Moines, Iowa, is another name of near mythic proportion. Now in her late 50s, she runs a home for transients. For years, the house was a notorious crack house.

"Jean is a firm believer in the power of prayer," Kelly says. "She remembered the story from the Bible of how Joshua and his army wanted to capture Jericho. The first thing they did was march around the city walls seven times."

Following the Israelite leader's lead, Lillig marched around the crack house seven times. Not long after that, police cleared it out and sold it to her for $1.

Nationwide, WCTU meetings still begin with a prayer. Yet, Kelly says, leaders do not ask potential members about their religious affiliation.

"We only ask two things," she says. "Pay your dues and sign a pledge card. Absolutely no drinking."

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