© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- If there is one thing those who belong to the Junior League of St. Petersburg will say, it's that membership has its privileges. It is an honor not to be taken lightly.
That's not to say they are averse to poking a tiny bit of fun at their sisters from purportedly gentler times.
The group's history practically begins with the story of a ubiquitous tea set and, word goes, a maid, that were plied into service from home to home to impress a bevy of guests who had come to town to ascertain the worthiness of the fledgling local club. The year was 1930.
Having gone through their own spit and polish inspection, members felt compelled to solemnly discuss the wisdom of admitting a young woman whose taste in nail polish was, to put it mildly, questionable. It was red; she had been schooled up North somewhere. The year was 1940.
There also is the story of the "night" members who were forbidden to vote. They, poor dears, had to work for a living and consequently forfeited their rights by not being able to attend the league's daytime meetings. That policy was changed in 1969.
Years later, even as members smile at the whims and foibles of the past, they emphasize the more than seven decades of service their organization has given to the community. An exhibit at the St. Petersburg Museum of History does just that. Visitors also will learn about the group's parent organization, the Association of Junior Leagues International, which was founded in 1901 by New York debutante Mary Harriman, who pressed 80 of her fellow debs into charitable work in the city's teeming settlement houses.
Those who visit the St. Petersburg exhibition might be surprised to learn of the local Junior League's leadership and involvement in the community. Initially organized to assist those who were suffering from the catastrophes of the Florida land bust and a duo of devastating hurricanes, the Junior League has gone on to play important roles in the creation and work of the Juvenile Welfare Board, the annual back-to-school care fair, which provides free health exams, immunizations and school supplies to children, the Christmas Toy Shop, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Pinellas County Youth Symphony, CASA, All Children's Hospital, Great Explorations museum and most recently the Family Visitation House.
Its 70th anniversary has been a time for celebration, said Colleen M. Russo, the organization's president.
"There is so much work involved, it was nice to be able to take a year to pat ourselves on the back for what we've done," she said.
It also has been a time of trying to educate the public about the Junior League, Mrs. Russo said. "Some person thought it was some sort of a baseball league," she said.
Then there are others, said Mrs. Russo, a personal-injury attorney, who refuse to believe that Junior Leaguers are anything but "an upper class, society type, tea party-going group of women."
The broader association has seen changes as well. Nationally, Junior League alumni have included Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (the first woman on the court), Eleanor Roosevelt and Shirley Temple Black. In St. Petersburg, Virginia Littrell, one of two women on the City Council and a former president of the local Junior League, says the group's leadership training has been invaluable in her professional and civic life.
Without question, Junior League members traditionally have hailed from families of prominence. Take Mary Wyatt Allen, for instance, whose civic involvement in the community is legendary. Her grandfather was in real estate, as was her father, Nathaniel W. "Niel" Upham, who built Shore Acres. She was Junior League president in 1969. Her sister, Marian Ballard, was president in 1977. Her mother, Rachel Rushton Upham, was one of the organization's founding members.
But it was under Mrs. Allen's leadership that job-holding Junior League members were given the vote.
"I looked at these people who, No. 1 were tired because they had worked all day, and No. 2 were angry because there wasn't a heck of a lot they could do, and I thought, this isn't really fair," Mrs. Allen recalled recently.
These days, the organization to which one had to be "proposed" in order to belong, has become less exclusive. Starting in the 1990s, anyone willing to pay the annual $120 in dues is welcome.
The rules were different when Annette Bryant Goddard joined.
"I didn't know that I had been proposed. It was done very quietly and then you were just called and invited to join. I was very pleased. I had a number of friends that were already members," recalled Mrs. Goddard, who became a Junior League member in 1947 and president in 1954.
"It was just a nice part of my life," she said.
"We really worked. It wasn't just about teas. Don't think for one minute it was just about teas. We had some fun times too, I want you to be sure of that, but we worked together."
Sally Eustis Roney, whose mother was one of the organization's founding members, said the Junior League is a good place for making friends.
"And it's an opportunity for you to work in the community," she said.
In 1992, Elithia Stanfield, assistant county administrator for Pinellas County, became the first black president of the formerly all-white group. Nationally, there have been changes as well. Deborah Brittain is the first black woman to lead the international association. Its previous president was of Cuban descent.
Junior Leagues are emphasizing diversity, membership retention and recruitment, Mrs. Russo said.
"I'm going to be meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, going out to the community, showing them our video, telling them what we're all about," said Mrs. Russo, who recalled her own reasons for joining the Junior League.
"I joined because I didn't know people and I didn't know the community. I joined because it's a wonderful, wonderful way to learn both. Once I got involved in the volunteer aspect of it, I was sold," said Mrs. Russo, who had moved from Ocala.
To me, it's a lifetime commitment. ... It comes down to whether you're community minded or not. If you want a social group, this is not it."
The club her mother helped found more than 70 years ago has evolved with the times, Mrs. Allen said.
"I am proud to say that the Junior League has kept up with society changes and as society has become more informal and relaxed, the Junior League has become the same," she said.
"What has remained the same is the deep concern for fellow man."
Junior League Centennial Exhibit, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. NE. Closes April 1. Call (727) 894-1052 for information.