Union’s WCU Celebrates Centennial
It was a simpler time, but perhaps the most important values in life were easier to enjoy, back when Western Catholic Union began in Union, 100 years ago on March 13th.
To celebrate the Centennial anniversary, many members will gather to celebrate mass at 5:00 PM Sunday, on the anniversary date, at Immaculate Conception Church.
Exactly 100 years ago, 27 charter members were gathered by WCU to create a “promising new branch, one of which WCU will have reason to be proud,” according to a printed record from that year. The first members were secured from “the most-representative parish members in Union.” William H. Lakebrink was the first President. Other Officers were: Augusta Klenke, Vice President; George J. Gildehaus, Financial Secretary; Mary Arand, Recording Secretary; and Martin Lause, Treasurer.
No organization lasts 100 years without incredible passion and energy. In the beginning, Lakebrink was that energy. Quickly he shared his story to all around: each family needed the insurance coverage WCU offered, and they should have a little fun (or a whole lot of fun) while doing it. The branch grew monthly, and quickly became one of the most successful in the entire organization. In the official write-up of a July 1922 meeting, Lakebrink states that “we had a great old-fashioned time after the initiating by dancing and playing games for prizes. The crowd stayed from 2 to 10.” He added, “If you don’t belong to the WCU, you ain’t in it anymore.”
“He sure was passionate about it, I know,” said his son, Herb, now age 93.
“Brother Lakebrink gave a very encouraging talk and the members of Branch 253 have every reason to be proud of its president, wrote Arand in May 1923. “He knows no such thing as stop when he goes to get new members, and the greater part of our members were won through his ambition.”
Lakebrink even started a branch Drama Club, putting on “The Path Across the Hill” in 1924 and “My Neighbor’s Wife” in 1927, among others, at the school hall. He assembled a seven-piece orchestra, which included the talents of his actors. Later, he formed branch athletic teams.
Lakebrink was the “Master of Ceremonies” for this tremendous branch growth, providing inspiring speech, promotion and entertainment at each monthly meeting. In 1931, Arand wrote, “The next speaker was our Worthy President, Wm. Lakebrink, whose ambitions never run out, has always something to talk about. Just leave it to him. Just call on him if you are looking for insurance and he will be Johnny-on-the- spot.”
Branch 253 was where the action was! They were, indeed, the Roaring 20’s. In the first two years, Branch 253 grew to over 90 members. The meetings were lively and fun. In the 30’s, one meeting featured an 8-stanza song, written by Lakebrink, sung by members to the tune of “Glory Hallelujah.” Here’s a part:
“Glory, glory hallelelujah,
“Glory, glory hallelelujah,
“Glory, glory hallelelujah,
“With a hearty welcome to all.”
The WCU will protect your loans;
The WCU will protect your homes;
The WCU – it has come to stay.
If only its laws we obey.”
Numbers grew, but that wasn’t a surprise. Lakebrink knew a lot about building since he was passionate about woodworking. “He made some of the sanctuary furniture for church in Union, and all the alter furniture and all the kneelers and pews for the church in Japan, Missouri. I think those are still being used today,” Herb said. “I was a kid then, and I helped him. I’m not sure it was by choice.” Herb laughed at that memory. Things William Lakebrink put together seem to last a long time.
After 20 years, the branch featured 292 adult members and 85 Juvenile members. More than 250 were in attendance at a meeting in 1945, and Lakebrink opened, “I wish that all branches could have at least one of these meetings once each year. It gives the members new life, something to talk about and work for. They feel more safe and sure about their insurance and it fills them with enthusiasm.”
“He laughed a lot. He had a very memorable laugh,” she said. And then here comes that description again: “He was Johnny-on-the-spot. When a baby was born, there he was. He was Mr. WCU.” Lakebrink and Pelster, both described as Johnny-on-the-spot some 90 years apart. Great work habits consistently produced results.
“Oh my Goodness, he was quite a go-getter as far as getting people involved,” current Branch Trustee Barbara Jeffs said.
Near the ages of 8 or 9, Carol and Barbara attended WCU picnics and other events, starting in the 1940’s.
Barb: “We probably played Go Fish.”
Carol: “Maybe for the most part it was just kids running around.”
Barb: “I remember swimming in the river.”
Carol: “There was lots and lots of fried chicken.”
Barb: “And little ice cream cups.”
Carol: “Somehow, the wife would have to get the husband to quit drinking and go home.”
There was no PlayStation 5 back then, and fewer dance classes, traveling ball teams and indoor soccer trips. Their Model T’s did not come with heated seats or satellite radio and couples didn’t fly off to the Caribbean. But people were happy. “In the beginning, nobody stayed home to watch TV,” Carol said. “People didn’t have anything else to do, and they loved to get together with other people. You weren’t supposed to work on Sundays, so a lot of visiting happened.”
It was fun, but Carol always knew WCU’s business made it all happen. “I don’t think that I ever didn’t think it was an insurance company,” Carol said. “My family would drive over to August Beckman’s house, our Financial Secretary, to pay our premium and branch dues.” Throughout the 100 years, the traditions of Branch 253 have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, the spirit of the branch is still guided by Carol’s late husband, Jerome, a former Branch President and National Trustee, who was the son of an original founding member of the branch, Mary Arand. “Jerome was the second Erbin Hagedorn,” Carol said. “He was very gung ho on attending everything WCU did and working hard on everything.”
From the beginning, Branch 253 has tried to help those in need. WCU has provided up to $500 in matching funds for special fundraising activities organized by the branch. Since that program started in 1978, Branch 253 has completed 230 of these fundraisers, raising $303,598.52 for local organizations, with WCU kicking in an additional $96,698.32. “I think we’ve done a lot of good over the years,” Barbara said.
Gary Sieve has provided steady leadership as branch President for several years now, and branch members still help raise money through fish fries, children’s games at area celebrations, raffles and auctions during the year for St. Vincent DePaul, St. Joseph parish in Neier, Immaculate Conception Church and School, Respect Life Apostolate in St. Louis, and other area organizations.
Each year, WCU’s Board of Trustees honors its top three branches with the Lakebrink award, and in 25 years of the award, Branch 253 has won the Gold Award for 1st place 8 times.
If Carol and Barbara speak fondly of playing games and swimming in Bourbeuse 75 years ago, in year 2095 some people might remember getting teddy bears at the most recent WCU Christmas parties. 25 years ago, Jerome and Carol worked out a deal with Vincent Closet, a used-everything store. They couldn’t sell the stuffed animals they had received, and they gave them to the branch if WCU would support St. Vincent DePaul. It was a deal. Carol and others scrubbed down every animal in order to give one to each child who attends the annual Christmas party. In early December each year, their faces would light up when receiving their first present of the year!
Union Branch 253 has reached its 100-year birthday, just like founding President William Lakebrink. He lived to 104. Great things last a long, long time. “Dad would have one shot of whiskey in the morning, every morning, with just tap water,” Herb said. “That’s about all I’d ever seen him drink.”
So, raise a glass, and celebrate the efforts of Branch 253 and the families of the Lakebrinks, Hagedorns, Pelsters, Arands and all of the others who poured their hearts into the community and helped so many families financially.
For decades, each WCU meeting ended when they first started playing the intro to “Home Sweet Home.” It’s been 100 years now, and their music has been sweet, but Branch 253 is not about to let this party end.