Lion March 2013 : Page 28

Stamp of Approval Stamp club bonds Lions and deepens appreciation of our worldwide scope by Elizabeth Blackwell

Stamp of Approval

Elizabeth Blackwell

Stamp club bonds Lions and deepens appreciation of our worldwide scope

Ward Crowley of Denver became a Lion in 1951. That same year, about 1,000 miles east in Chicago, Lions’ founder Melvin Jones, an avid stamp collector, helped initiate a Lions’ stamp club. Crowley joined that club seven years later. Since then, he’s been a fanatical stamp collector as well as a devoted Lion.

Crowley has rarely missed an opportunity to promote Lions or the Lions International Stamp Club (LISC). Often his passion for stamps increased his loyalty to Lions. It worked the other way, too: his attachment to Lions intensified his devotion to stamp collecting.

Crowley was always thinking up ways to get attention for Lions’ activities. In 1961, when he was district publicity chairperson, he arranged for the charter of the new Denver Skyline Lions Club to be presented onboard a plane circling the airport. He was equally creative and persistent in spreading the word about the stamp club, helping spur its growth during the 1960s and 1970s.

Because the Denver club was one of the founding clubs of Lions Clubs International, Crowley was often introduced to visiting Lions from other countries. He gave them the stamp club pitch and asked them to promote the club when they got home.

“When international presidents came to visit, I’d nail them,” says Crowley. “The year I was president of the stamp club [1969-70], I wrote a letter to every district governor in the world, and they all promoted the club in their newsletters.”

The LISC currently has 14 chapters around the world and almost 400 members. The most active chapters include Singapore, Australia, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The two U.S. chapters are based in New Jersey and California.

For stamp collectors in general, the hobby feeds intellectual curiosity, provides “thrill-of-the-hunt” moments and provides a social outlet. For Lions, all of that is true and then some. If Lions can quickly bond with one another, then stamp-collecting Lions feel a special kinship among one other.

What they like best about the stamp club, members say, are the interpersonal connections they’ve made and the sense of camaraderie that comes along with membership. Discussions that started over stamps have developed into friendships that last a lifetime.

“If Lions are the best-kept secret, the stamp club is the second best-kept secret,” says LISC president Douglas Schembs Jr. of the Westfield Lions Club in New Jersey. “Because of the stamp club, I have friends all over the world. It allows you to really see the Lions as international.”

John Bargus, a life member of the Malahat Lions Club in British Columbia, Canada, joined the stamp club in 1974, after a chance encounter at an international convention in Dallas reignited his childhood interest in collecting. “I attended 24 international conventions during my life, and my only regret at the end of them was having to say farewell to the other stamp club members and wondering when we would meet again,” he says. “I have met some of finest Lions through the stamp club, and learned about international relations firsthand.”

A popular hobby worldwide since the mid-1800s, stamp collecting is easily adaptable to different interests and budgets. Some aficionados buy stamps from a particular country; others choose to specialize in stamps that depict a certain topic, such as flowers or dogs. Another subset of collectors values rarity: stamps that were misprinted or otherwise quickly pulled from circulation (and are there- fore more expensive). While most stamp collections are put together in albums for personal enjoyment, other collectors act more as dealers, buying up unusual stamps and selling them at a profit.

Most LISC members collect a wide variety of stamps, but they also focus on stamps that commemorate the Lions in some way. But exactly what counts as a “Lions” stamp is a subject of frequent debate, with no definitive answer. It could mean a stamp that displays a Lions logo or text, but it could also be a stamp that commemorates a subject associated with Lions such as blindness or Helen Keller. More than 119 countries and territories have issued postage stamps that recognize the work of Lions clubs. The first was issued in 1940 in Cuba in honor of the 24th International Convention.

Crowley describes his many years of work with the stamp club as “a labor of love.” He specializes in collecting “covers,” the stamped, postmarked envelopes that were issued to commemorate club activities, anniversaries and festivals. Over the years, he amassed a collection of more than 3,000. “First it was a hobby, then it became an obsession,” he laughs.

Passionate collectors like Crowley can easily get caught up in the thrill of the hunt: tracking down the one or two missing stamps that would make their collection complete. One set of covers, produced by a club in Bay City, Texas, to commemorate their annual rice festival, became Crowley’s version of the Holy Grail.

“I’d get one here and another there,” he remembers, “but I wanted them all. I finally found out that the wife of one of the members was the one who got them all postmarked, so I tracked her down and wrote to her to ask if she was willing to sell her collection. She said she wouldn’t sell them for the world. I wrote back, offering $25, and right away I heard back from the woman’s sister, saying she’d be happy to sell her collection to me.” He still laughs with delight as he recounts the story, both proud and amused by his perseverance.

Far-flung members come together in person at the international convention, when the stamp club’s annual meeting is held. (The club also sets up its own mini post office so that commemorative covers can be canceled on site.) “Everyone gets together for dinner afterwards, and you have these really interesting conversations,” says Dr. Howard Levenson, another LISC past president. An optometrist and member of the San Rafael Host Lions Club in California, Levenson credits the club with introducing him to many people who have become long-term friends: “You have the camaraderie of people getting together to share a common interest, and you’re also learning a lot of history and geography. It’s an education.”

For club member Ken Stuckey, stamp collecting was what brought him to Lions. As a young research librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind (Helen Keller’s alma mater) in Watertown, Massachusetts, Stuckey was asked to start a collection of stamps on blindness for the school. That project brought him in touch with Lions Frank Schofield, of Laguna Beach, California, and Curt Schneider, of Manchester, New Hampshire, who donated their collections to the school and helped educate Stuckey about Lions.

In 1975, Stuckey put together an exhibition and catalog of the Perkins collection, which brought the topic of blindness to the attention of the general public. It also began his correspondence with collector Gunilla Stenberg of the Tomteboda School for the Blind in Stockholm, Sweden. Stuckey and Stenberg soon discovered they had more in common than a love of stamp collecting, and they eventually married.

Stuckey joined the Watertown Lions Club in Massachusetts in 1976, and continued to work at Perkins until his retirement in 1998. He now belongs to the Stockholm Lions Club. “Looking back, it’s a wonder to see how my wife’s and my collections have grown from a handful of stamps to over 400,” he says. “We are often asked, ‘Why hasn’t my country issued a stamp related to blindness?’ To which we often reply, ‘We think they have!’”

Many of those international stamps are now offered for sale through the LISC’s website, with most stamps priced at less than $5. A starter collection of the most important Lions stamps can be put together for about $150 to $250. The Internet has led to a price decline for stamps—as collectors can now comparison-shop all over the world—but it also has made it easier for specialists to track down rare specimens. While the 1940 Cuba stamp sells individually for about $2, two complete sheets of the stamp recently sold for $375, an example of how a stamp’s format can add to its value.

The wide variety of colors and styles is one key to the appeal of a Lions stamp collection. A 1996 series of stamps from Kenya, for example, has pictures illustrating an ambulance, a child in a wheelchair and doctors performing eye surgery—all Lions-funded projects. A 1967 series from Rwanda shows the Lions’ logo with a zebra, against a variety of colored backgrounds, while a 1991 series from Guyana has both “Lions International” and “Melvin Jones” imprinted on vibrant pictures of tropical butterflies.

True to the Lions’ spirit of service, stamp club members give back to their communities, donating stamps to retirement communities and veterans’ homes, where hobbies such as stamp collecting help keep residents mentally engaged and entertained. “Giving boxes of stamps to people can make them very happy,” says Levenson.

Visiting schools also gives members a chance to pass on their interest to a new generation. “When you support a youth group in stamp collecting,” Bargus says, “it enables them to understand that there are others in this world who are both like them and different.” Showing children unusual stamps—such as a 1985 stamp from the Netherlands honoring guide dogs, with Braille print indentations—can also lead into a discussion of what Lions do.

But stamp collecting has a hard time competing against the lure of video games and Facebook, just as the rise of email and text messaging has cut into the sale of stamps. In the 1970s, the LISC had 1,100 members, more than twice today’s membership. The two U.S. chapters are “treading water,” says Schembs, with a core group of longtime members keeping things going. However, the fact that some overseas chapters have grown in recent years gives hope that the U.S. chapters can be revitalized as well.

One way to do that is through a major new initiative spearheaded by the LISC: having stamps issued around the world to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lions Club International in 2017. “We want to do this big,” says Schembs, who has already set up a committee to get the ball rolling. “We’re planning to contact the postal authorities in every country that has a Lions club, and we’re hopeful we can do it.”

Traditionally, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) does not approve stamps that honor nonprofit associations or service organizations. But in 1967, thanks to strong public support and lobbying by Colorado Congressman and Lion Byron Rogers, Lions Clubs International was recognized on a U.S. stamp in conjunction with LCI’s 50th anniversary and “Search for Peace” essay contest. Unfortunately, the stamp itself, which showed a dove holding an olive branch, ended up being somewhat controversial, due to its drab color scheme and the tiny, almost unreadable letters used for the Lions’ text.

Stamp club members are hoping for a more compelling visual image this time around, but getting a new U.S. stamp approved won’t be easy. The USPS receives thousands of proposals for commemorative stamps each year, but only about 20 are chosen. The more voices heard in support of the stamp, the more likely it will become a reality (see side- bar on page 31).

The good news is that you don’t have to wait until 2017 to see the Lions on a U.S. postage stamp. Through websites such as, and, you can design and print your own personalized stamps, which are accepted by the USPS. Collectors might not consider them “official” Lions stamps, but using them for your own correspondence or club mailings are fun ways to get the word out. “What a great way for Lions to show the world and fellow Lions what we do,” says Stuckey.

Get Involved

You’ll find more details on the Lions International Stamp Club and how to join on the group’s website: Members receive a quarterly newsletter, The Philatelist, with updates on recently issued stamps. The club also publishes a catalog of Lions-related stamps, available for purchase. Many individual country stamps with the Lions logo can be bought for $1 to $5, making it relatively affordable to get started.

To find out more about the movement to issue a 100th anniversary Lions Club International stamp in the United States, contact Dr. Howard Levenson at Additional volunteers are always welcome.

Stamp Collecting Resources

To find out more about stamp collecting, the following groups have helpful, detailed websites aimed at both beginners and longtime collectors:

1. A good general education site for newcomers to the hobby.

2. The American Philatelic Society ( The official website of the world’s largest nonprofit association for stamp collectors. You can buy and sell stamps online, as well as get referrals to local dealers and clubs.

3. The National Postal Museum ( Part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., this museum has an extensive, well-designed website, full of historical information. You can see rare and unusual stamps up close by browsing dozens of online “exhibits,” including “15 Objects that Changed Postal History.”

4. The American Topical Association ( group serves collectors who organize their stamps by theme. Browse the site to see the full range of popular topics including space, wine, Christmas, animals, railroads and religious imagery.

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