In January 1923, John B. Sutton and nine other “younger” Tampa business leaders began meeting at the Maas Tavern downtown in an effort to launch an Exchange Club. The national organization would not issue a charter until a local club had reached a 25 member threshold. The Exchange Club of Tampa first attained this quota in April 1923 and held its first formal meeting on April 18th, becoming the fourth Exchange Club in the state. Meetings were held at 12:30 p.m. at the Hillsboro Hotel. W.L. Waring, Jr. was unanimously elected as the club’s first president. At the beginning, the club enjoyed close to 100% attendance at its luncheon meetings.
In 1923, the United States was entering the fourth year of its “noble experiment,” Prohibition. The banning of the sale of alcohol expressed the deeply felt desire of reformers who sought to improve the quality of American life. At the same time, Americans were glorying in a robust economy and “thirsted” for adventure. The automobile, primarily the Model T, allowed millions to roam freely, and what people sought was a good time. It was the Roaring Twenties, after all, flappers, jazz and the Charleston all betokened a culture dedicated to pleasure, usually with booze. Yet possessing alcohol was illegal. Thus, the 1920s might be called paradoxical: on the one hand, people partied as never before, with freedom never imagined; yet reformers had made sobriety the law of the land. The founding of the Exchange Club Tampa represents the dual impulses of the 1920s: the club’s motto was “Unity for Service,” but the club also gave its members a safe place to unwind.
An examination of the early interests and activities of the Exchange Club of Tampa reveals much about the forces at work in the United States in the 1920s. People in the Roaring Twenties wanted to enjoy themselves and members of the club were no different. In July 1923, perhaps member Johnny Portless had imbibed one liquid refreshment too many when, during a luncheon, he hopped up on a table and dazzled the membership with his virtuosity on the ukulele. President Waring liked to force new members to recite the first names of other members on command. At some meetings, members drew names and then hurled insults at their selected target to the merriment of all. Such stories indicate that the club pursued happiness as called for in the Declaration of Independence.
Yet, not all meetings centered on jocularity. Technology was transforming American society and the club sought to be on the cutting edge. One lecturer in 1923 spoke about “electronic theory,” showing the degree to which Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr had altered mankind’s understanding of the universe. When Carl D. Brorein, who happened to be secretary of the telephone company, became club president, members were soon introduced to the “intricacies and operation of the automatic telephone,” ushering in the revolution of telecommunications. The club even held a “long distance call contest,” won by Frank Bowyer, with a grade of 100% plus. In 1923, the ability to dial a telephone was a rare skill. Thus, Exchangites were eager to learn to stay ahead of the curve.
One of the first civic or humanitarian projects the club undertook was raising money for the Clara Frye Hospital. This fundraising effort was the brainchild of Dr. W.J. Lancaster, the club vice-president. The Clara Frye was Tampa’s only hospital for African Americans. By 1923, racial segregation was an entrenched way of life, in the North as well as in the South. The Exchange Club endeavored to raise sufficient cash to make significant and much needed changes at the “Negro” hospital, including the addition of an operating room. Such efforts showed how the club was progressive in outlook. Not all people were as progressive back then. In the 1920s, many Americans resisted the swirling changes that were at work in the country, and joined racist organizations that were considered mainstream. The Exchange Club differed greatly from such organizations like the Ku Klux Klan which espoused hatred. Exchangites embraced the future and sought to help the disadvantaged even as others were taking a more violent, repressive path.
In the 1930s, America entered perhaps its darkest hour: the Great Depression. This massive economic cataclysm would send 25% of the country’s workers into unemployment and cause food riots. Americans wondered if the country would actually survive. The Exchange Club managed to endure during the 1930s, although not without some struggle. In 1933, for example, 23 members either had delinquent accounts or were dropped for non-payment of dues. Considering that the club’s membership stood at 39, such financial hardship showed how pervasive the effects of the Great Depression were. Even the acknowledged business leaders of Tampa were having trouble making ends meet. In fact, Curtis Hixon, future mayor of Tampa, was dropped for non payment of dues. In 1933, the club could only manage a $50 donation to the Community Chest, a sum that paled to the thousands raised for the Clara Frye just ten years before. By all accounts, 1933 might have been the worst in American economic history.
But the 1930s did not beat the club down. With an unstable membership, the club took measures in 1933 to change the way its officers were selected. A group of five directors would oversee club operation. In the 1930s, the club also began entering a float in the Gasparilla Parade, and on it, so legend has it, rode the prettiest girls in all of Tampa. Gala beach parties were held on Clearwater Beach featuring golf for the gentlemen, cards for the ladies, dining and dancing at the Coliseum. Twenty one dollar cigars were also enjoyed. Also during the 1930s, the club began hosting an annual “Sunshine Special,” in which literally hundreds of disadvantaged children were treated to an all-day outing at Clearwater Beach. For some children, it would prove to be their first trip to the beach. In 1935, the Rev. Jack Redhead spoke to the children about “Americanism,” demonstrating the club’s longtime commitment to citizenship.
In 1937, the club hosted the 21st annual convention of the National Exchange Club, which put the city in the national spotlight. Governor Cone attended the sessions, which included a ringing speech by Thomas Imeson of Jacksonville denouncing organized labor as “communistic.” The nightly entertainment featured an elaborate party at “Cypress Acres,” the country estate of Tampa Exchangite J. William Dupree in Pasco County. Conventioneers also took a post-convention trip to Havana, at the time a popular vacation spot for American executives. But in1951, another post-convention trip to Havana possibly changed the Tamps club’s relationship with the national organization. The national convention that year was held in Miami Beach, and during the course of events, a personality conflict emerged between the Tampa club’s President Hamner Miller and the National Exchange Club’s Executive Secretary, Hal Harder, who was known as “Mr. Exchange.” By all accounts, Harder was a stern taskmaster. The source of the dispute remains enshrouded in mystery, but the result was that Tampans decided no longer to send a representative to the National Convention. The real story may never be known.
The Tampa Exchange Club also changed its focus in the 1950s: since so many of its members engaged in civic activities with other organizations, the club evolved into more of a social body where community leaders could gather. The outgoing President was to pick a charity to which the club would donate money raised from its annual golf tournament. Also in the 1950s, James Mellon instituted a public speaking contest and the club gave out its first Citizenship Award to local students. There were other changes as well. The club no longer met at the Hillsboro Hotel, as it was slated for demolition. The Club has met at the Tampa Terrace Hotel, the Commerce Club, the Floridian Hotel, Riverfront Hilton, the Days Inn (formerly a Sheraton affiliate) and the Holiday Inn, where, according to past President Hugo Schmidt, the food is the best.
But no matter where lunch was served, the Tampa Exchange Club continued to grow. In 1967 it could claim 172 members, making it the largest in the state. In 1973, the club celebrated its 50th anniversary with a noon luncheon at the Sheraton Tampa Motor Hotel and an evening cocktail party at the University Club. Several past presidents heard Leaborne L. Eads, a member of the board of directors of the National Exchange Club, give a talk entitled “It’s Later Than You Think,” and he predicted that “if America falls, it will fall from within.” Eads’ apocalyptic utterance, while not coming to pass, expressed the deep frustration of the 1970s, a time of unrest, protest, inflation and limitation. Despite the turmoil of the times, by 1974, the club would have 189 members, still the largest in the state.
Community service has continued to be important to the club. It was one of the first sponsors of the Florida Sheriff’s Boys Club. It raised money for the Crippled Children’s Fund, Easter Seal Society and Hillsborough County Retarded Children. The club has also placed emphasis on nurturing the leaders of tomorrow. It has seen to the installation of numerous “Freedom Shrines” in area schools, and has provided scholarships to deserving students, as well as contributing money to Boys State. Higher education has also been a recipient of the club’s largesse. The club has furnished a room at the University of Tampa, and for the University of South Florida, it donated money for a dorm, which the federal government matched tenfold.
The Exchange Club has enjoyed a close relationship with the Chamber of Commerce from the earliest days of the club. In 1924, for example, the Exchange Club and the Tampa Chamber of Commerce met jointly at a Monday luncheon at the Hillsboro Hotel. The civic organizations shared ideas about slogans for Tampa’s future development. Such “boosterism” was common in cities at the South during the 1920s, especially in Florida. The “boom” was on and real estate was the fuel of the fire. Between 1900 and 1950, Florida’s population would increase by over 400%. Civic leader H.L. Culbreath has served as president of both organizations. In 1980, the two groups teamed up again to start the “Kids and Kops” program (which featured athletic trading cards with crime prevention tips on the back) in an effort to promote better relations between local police and juveniles. The Exchange Club donated $4,000 to help with the printing costs of the cards.
The Exchange Club is a unique civic organization for many reasons. It has no compulsory attendance rules, no strict classification of members and has resisted the addition of Exchange Clubs in Hillsborough County. Friendliness, fellowship and help-each other attitude prevail. Sons have followed fathers into the club which has included some of the most prominent civic and social leaders of Tampa including presidents and directors of the Chamber of Commerce, United Fund (later called the United Way) and kings and courtiers of Gasparilla. One member deserves special mention, and that is Emelio Pons who for over five decades served in many capacities, beginning in 1928, when he served on the Entertainment Committee. He served as treasurer for over 50 years, as secretary from 1933 to 1936 and again in 1944. His tenure with the club spanned the Great Depression and the Great Communicator, and without his efforts, it is doubtful that the club would be as successful as it currently is. Although rumor has it that when Emelio was treasurer, nobody but he knew exactly how much money the club had.
Since 1923, the United States has undergone several challenges and great change. The Exchange Club of Tampa has reflected the larger forces at work within the larger society. It began during a time when America was determined to make itself a better nation for all its citizens. Economic downturns, wars, conflicting ideologies and protest all have forced the nation to make difficult decisions. The Exchange Club offered a haven of sorts, a place where leaders could unwind and yet continue to work together to provide service.