Sewickley's social clubs fight to hang on
Paul Collier practically gushes when he talks about his time in the Senior Men's Club of Sewickley.
Collier, 83, who joined the club in 1993, tosses photo after photo on a desk as he recalls speakers the club hosted and people he met. There's Steelers legend Franco Harris, Pirates announcer Bob Walk and Dr. Cyril Wecht, former Allegheny County coroner.
But his fondest memory? “Probably when I made president in 1998. I was very proud to be president of Senior Men's Club,” Collier said. He and Austin McGrath, 98, the only surviving charter member, live in Masonic Village.
As members of social clubs age or die, these clubs are unable to do things they once did. More than that, there is concern about how they will carry on.
“We've been losing members little by little every year,” Collier said.
Many social clubs were formed post-World War II for retirees and veterans. They once participated in dances, community celebrations, parades and trips.
Now, members of such clubs gather mostly for fellowship, to hear speakers and performers, or take in the occasional ballgame.
Michal Lea, 76, has been a member of the Woman's Club of Sewickley Valley for only a couple of years but knows how it morphed over time.
Founded in 1897, the Woman's Club was known for community outreach and programs that drew speakers such as Amelia Earhart, author James Michener and actor Robert Shaw.
“In those days, it was quite a force for socializing. Many women did not work outside the home, so it served as an outlet for intellectual advancement for them,” said Lea, who joined when she moved to the East Coast.
“It was a social safety network. The club has definitely changed in nature ... to a social club where you can be with others and hopefully hear a program you find enjoyable,” she said.
Lea said membership fell from a high of 400 or 500 to about 100, and the Woman's Club can't afford to host big names anymore. Its footprint in the community has shrunk. No longer do members do work with public schools and nursing homes, advocate for such things as sanitation improvements or get involved in local politics.
Most members are seniors, she said. “We do work to get younger members, but it's tough. We meet in the middle of the day, at lunchtime, and people work and have families and just can't come out.”
To appeal to younger women, the club has a website and is considering a Facebook page. It plans to open an evening program to the public this year.
Fifteen people joined last year. Lea is hopeful. “This is not a closed group. I sympathize with the men's group because we are having the same problems,” she said.
William Beaver, professor of sociology at Robert Morris University, said it's a far-reaching concern.
People are too busy to engage with one another, he said. They work in one place and live in another, so they lost a sense of community. Many stay in their homes when not at work. Technology contributes to the dynamic, because people don't need to socialize to get news or make plans.
“They don't interact, talk, do things that are mutually beneficial,” he said.
The Senior Men's Club, which held its first meeting in January 1989, still handles traffic control for Sewickley events such as 5K races and helps tend the greens during golf events at Allegheny Country Club. But — as their name suggests — many of the estimated 250 members are at least 74 years old, and some are over 90.
Bob Ford, 77, program chairman, has an optimistic view.
“I think the club is still on the healthy side,” he said, “although the older you get, you have to keep looking at the obituaries to find out where your club is.”
He noted it draws about 80 people to weekly meetings.
“We picked up 30 members this year,” he said.
“But as more people pass away,” whether the club can survive “is more of an issue that is right in front of you.”
Mya Koch is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-324-1403 or email@example.com.