Giving Back

Somers Lions Still Roaring after 50 Years

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John Harkins and Jerry Billingsley in their Somers office Credits: Gabrielle Bilik
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SOMERS, N.Y. - The Somers Lions Club has served the community for the last 50 years through countless service projects and events, striving to make the community a better place in which to live. Celebrating its 50th anniversary next month, two charter members, John Harkins and Jerry Billingsley, looked back at the club’s beginnings, including the day the charter was signed in a bar, which is now Il Forno.

“I remember we didn’t have enough people to get it started, so I went to the bar and said ‘please can you come down so we have enough people to start the Somers Lions’?” Billingsley said. “Some people were a little tipsy.”

Aside from being founding members of the Lions Club, the long-time friends worked together at Billingsley’s family business, Billingsley Realty, Inc. The two met in 1951 at St. Mary’s High School in Katonah, where they graduated together in 1955. They went their separate ways for college; Harkins to Boston College and eventually NYU for his masters, and Billingsley went to the University of Oklahoma to study political science and then to get his real estate license. They joined Jerry’s mother, Frances Billingsley, in Somers in 1961 at Billingsley Realty, where Billingsley is now the principal broker and Harkins is an agent. In 1966, they started the Lions.

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Now at 110 members, the club is three times the size of neighboring communities’ Lions Clubs, Harkins said, and still going strong.

“It’s amazing, these people who come in,” Harkins said, “They’re so gung-ho.”

Much like the way new members need to be invited into the Lions by existing members, new clubs need to be sponsored by existing clubs. The Lewisboro Lions and the Yorktown Lions co-sponsored the Somers Lions in 1966.

Both Billingsley and Harkins agree that another charter member, Wayne Van Tassel, was vital to the club’s inception. Van Tassel was a school principal in Somers and at the time and an active member of the Lewisboro Lions. He saw the need for a club in Somers and sponsored the start-up of the Somers club. He was the first president of the Lions in Somers and would eventually move to the area.

Billingsley described him as a natural teacher and leader, always very invested in the lives of his students.

Harkins described him as a go-getter, the first to take initiative and organize action.

“We would have meetings at six in the morning,” Harkins said. “Without his enthusiasm and without his drive, I don’t think this club would be what it is today.”

The club first established itself in the community when its members built the park pavilion and bandstand at Reis Park in the late 1960s.

“It was a beautiful 70 acres left by Caroline Reis,” Harkins said. “The town took it under the condition that it wouldn’t be developed; it would be a park.,”

The Lions took control and built the pavilion with the help of an outside contractor to pour the concrete for the foundation, Harkins said.

“It was all hands on deck,” Harkins said. “We had the talent and worked on it every weekend. If you were a Lion back then, your weekend was booked for nine to 10 weeks.”

The construction of the pavilion was the catalyst that started the development of the park, Harkins said.

“We brought the park to everybody’s imagination,” he said. “What it could be if they got involved.”

Since then, the Lions Club has been involved in several community parks projects over the years and hosts several annual community events, including the Somers Lions Club track meet, the Independence Day celebration, the annual carnival, and car raffle. In addition to events, the club contributes to several local charities including Friends of Karen, Guiding Eyes for the Blind and Blythedale Children’s Hospital.

The club’s criteria for giving its assistance is simply “those who are in need,” said Billingsley. He said if it comes to the attention of Lions Clubs members that an individual is struggling, the club will help them.

“We’ve filled a lot of oil tanks and put a lot of groceries on the table,” Harkins said. “But it’s never published—that’s all behind the scenes.”

Throughout the years, the satisfaction members got from helping their community hasn’t waned, Harkins said. The need to take to make improvements or to help when it’s needed doesn’t go away.

“I think the whole town knows we do good stuff,” he said. “They want to give back to their community, they want to be part of it. It’s their town and they want to make it the best town around and you can’t beat the Lions Club—there’s no one as involved in this type of activity as the Lions Club.”

Billingsley and Harkins also credit the club’s success to the diversity of the members

The 50-year anniversary gala will be held at Villa Barone Hilltop Manor in Mahopac on May 6. Harkins said the Lions are going all out this year by providing a comedian, a magician and a professional emcee and DJ for the event.

Originally, Harkins said they estimated 150 would attend. They’ve since changed ballrooms three times as the guest list has reached 300 and counting. Tickets must be purchased in advance at somerslionsclub.org. The event is black tie optional.

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