A League of Their Own

From its beginnings, the local branch of the Junior League was led by women determined to help raise up Fort Lauderdale.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Jul. 25, 2016

I asked a few local young millennial women, do you know what the Junior League is? They shook their heads. One said, “Some kind of sports thing?”

Then I asked them if they’d heard of the Museum of Art, or the Museum of Discovery and Science, or Kids in Distress. “Sure, everybody knows them.” Well, did you know that the Junior League – a band of young women aiming to uplift the community - were in on the founding of each of these institutions?

“Really!” Yeah, really.

Starting back in an ancient year called 1937, these women saw needs in the young city and aimed to do something about it.

One of our Junior League’s first projects was the opening of a thrift shop at the corner of Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue (now the site of the Broward Governmental Center). It was housed in an old railroad car, previously occupied by a popular diner in the ’20 and ’30s.

The thrift shop started earning profits. Along with other fund raising activities of the volunteers, that was enough to found the Jack and Jill Nursery, one of the first low-tuition daycare centers for working mothers. Later came the Henderson Clinic, which treated those in need of mental health assistance.

The Junior League opened the Fort Lauderdale Art Center in 1958. It began as a “legacy project” (like the nursery and clinic), which meant that the league would help it along until it could get up and running. In the case of the art center, the league provided support for seven years. The project gained steam with George Bolge as director, leading to the magnificent modernist structure and exhibition space that serves us today, the NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.

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Concern for the poor and for the community’s cultural needs was matched by the league’s concern for historic preservation. The league campaigned for the New River Inn and the surrounding area to be declared a historic site. It also led the campaign to save the King-Cromartie House, built of Dade

County Pine in 1907, from demolition. The feat was achieved, incredibly, by towing the 150-ton home by barge from its original home in Smoker Park to a spot next to the New River Inn. The King-Cromartie house was restored and is now a pioneer museum.

In 1977, the Junior League opened the doors on another “legacy project,” the Discovery Center, in the restored New River Inn. That was the beginning of what today we know as the Museum of Discovery and Science, one of the most popular destinations in the state – and one that sits just down the street from the still-thriving New River Inn, now the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society’s New River Inn Museum of History.

A year earlier, Kids in Distress, yet another legacy project, was launched. This center served abused and neglected children and their families with a 24-hour crisis nursery and counseling services. Dozens more legacy projects were to follow.

So just who are these women?

Looking back through newspaper articles over the years, the various photographs of league members might fool you.

An article from 1964 in the Fort Lauderdale News shows that year’s crop of  “provisional members” – those invited to join, having vowed six years of community service. What we see are 16 women in elegant gowns with perfectly coiffed hair, a spreading Banyan tree behind them.

Had they been a few years younger they could have been at a debutante’s ball. Some might be tempted to judge such women as too timid to get their hands dirty. They would be wrong. In a 1969 article in the Fort Lauderdale News, a member of the city’s chapter, Nancy Sanson, insisted the “social butterfly image” was inaccurate.

“Everything we do is tied to community service,” Sanson said. “We are not bridge players, nor do we give coffees for the sake of giving coffees.”

Now called the Junior League of Greater Fort Lauderdale, the group has “a total of 540 members, with just over 200 in active status,” says current president Elizabeth Swann.

Next year this time-tested band of volunteers will celebrate 80 years of service to our city.  They may call themselves “Junior,” but I’ll call them “Mighty.”