The pride of the Lions

It's why Lions are Lions. To serve. It's why Neil Clarke is a Lion.

“Been a Lion since 1955,” the Mount Maunganui man says proudly. “I was one of 22 foundation members of the country's very first Lions Club in Auckland.”

Now 89, turning 90 later this year, Neil Clarke, Papal Knight, OBE, QSO and JP, is this country's longest serving Lion.

For 100 years internationally, Lions have been saving sight, feeding struggling families, providing life-saving vaccines to children and rebuilding communities devastated by disaster. Humanitarian support in many, many forms.

And for 62 of those 100 years, Neil Clarke has been serving the server.

“Wonderful environment to do community service and enjoy fellowship,” he says, while soaking up the sun and listening to National radio in his Bayswater Retirement Village villa. “Enormous satisfaction.”

Neil could qualify as poster boy for the upcoming MD202 Lions Convention – the multi-districts 57th annual general here in Tauranga. The numbers are impressive.

The convention takes in seven Lions Districts here in New Zealand, and Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa – a catchment of 366 clubs and nearly 10,000 members.

“But there will be 300 or 400 delegates at the Bethlehem College Performing Arts Centre in Tauranga on April 28-30,” says conference chairman Alan Schofield.

On Friday night there'll be the flag ceremony – flags representing some the 200 countries in which Lions operate will be brought into the auditorium by Leos, the young Lions. And on Saturday the Lions will get down to business – business like a remit out of Waihi to raise a lot of money for the battle against diabetes.

That's a lot of money for a lot of people. Globally the Lions have set a goal of touching and improving the lives of 200 million people each year by 2121 – tripling the organisation's humanitarian impact.

But they're also touching lives at home, like little Kylie Strongman. The toddler was someone quite special during Neil's continuing long service with Lions.

“She needed a kidney transplant, which had to be done in Australia. We held a phone-a-thon and raised $100,000 for the operation. Very satisfying.” There was also a flow-on effect, which raised another $100,000. “That money went to Starship Children's' Hospital.”

 That was 20 years ago during Neil's 50-year service with the Paeroa Lions.

“There were no Lions in Paeroa when we arrived. I was the foundation president and we ended up with the largest membership per capita of any Lions Club in New Zealand.” Sixty members in a little place like Paeroa.

Neil is now a member of the Mount Maunganui Lions – and, as the country's longest serving Lion he's not as active as he used to be. “But I still pay my levies and they are very kind to me.”

And this was a man who didn't know what Lions were about when he was pulled into the club in 1955. “I knew they were a service club, but I didn't know much more.”

Those were the days a Lions Club had just one of everything – one butcher, one baker, one candlestick maker. “It was made for diversity, different people bringing different skillsets.”

In Neil Clarke the club had an ambitious and very capable 25-year-old management diploma course graduate from State Advances. The rest is Lions history.

And on the Sunday, April 28, the 300 or 400 delegates at the MD202 convention in Tauranga will remember past Lions and hold a re-dedication – a personal recommitment to all the good humanitarian Lions work still to be done.

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