Lions and Leader Dog – Together for over 70 Years
It all started with “$400 and a hatful of ideas.” - Donald P. Schuur.
From left to right: William Joyce with Neitzie, Earl Morrey with Baron, Dr. Glenn Wheeler with Hilda and Paul Brown with Van.
Leader Dogs for the Blind would not exist today if not for Lions Clubs International. Beginning with the support of one club, Leader Dog is now supported by Lions Clubs from all over the world.
It all began in 1938 (if you thought 1939, keep reading), when Charles A. Nutting, Donald P. Schurr and S.A. Dodge led the Uptown Lions Club of Detroit in establishing a school to train guide dogs for the blind. Their motivation was Dr. Glenn Wheeler, a fellow Uptown Lion whose attempts to be accepted by another guide dog school proved unsuccessful. The first students were housed at the Park Avenue Hotel in Detroit and graduated in the fall of 1938. Three Detroit Lions Clubs held a contest among all Lions Clubs for a new name for their venture. Over 500 names were submitted from around the world. The winning name “Lions Leader” was submitted by the Lions Club of Coulterville, Illinois.
The house rented in 1939 would have over 12,000 students in residence until its demolition in 2003.
On April 4, 1939, Lions Leader Dog Foundation was incorporated as a Michigan nonprofit. In May 1939, the Foundation leased a small farm in Rochester, Michigan to house their new venture. Fifty dollars per month rented a farmhouse for the students and staff, a barn for the dogs and a garage.
On October 8, 1939, the first class of the official Lions Leader Dog Foundation graduated. The cost to graduate a student/dog team was $600.
Soon after incorporation, the Lions International Board of Directors requested that we remove the word “Lions” from our name because they had not sanctioned official support of the organization. So on June 15, 1940, the new name “Leader Dog League for the Blind” became official. The remainder of the 1940s saw continued growth of the school and increased involvement of local and nationwide Lions Clubs. Support came in the form of donations, identifying potential students and spreading the word of Leader Dog’s work and mission.
Many remember Pock for his dedication to Leader Dog, to Lions and for his ever-present pipe. He is pictured here with his dog Shane.
The decade of the '50s welcomed the 1st Leader Dog week (Dec. 3–9, 1950) in Michigan as proclaimed by Governor G. Mennen Williams. We received a new Executive Director in 1951, Harold “Pock” Pocklington. Pock had been on our Board of Trustees since 1948 after he first visited Leader Dog while a District Governor-Elect. He would stay at Leader Dog until his death in 1986. Our global ties to the Lions began strengthening in 1953 when S.A. Dodge served as president of Lions International, bringing Leader Dog to the Lions at the highest possible level. Melvin Jones, founder of Lionism, gave Leader Dog his personal endorsement in 1958.
The 1960s brought continued growth at Leader Dog in terms of number of students graduated, number of dogs trained and number of employees on staff. In 1963, Lions International President Jorge Bird of Puerto Rico became involved with Leader Dog when he brought a Spanish soldier, Francisco A. Garcia, who had been blinded by a shell explosion, to get a dog. Until this time, the Lions were unable to establish themselves in Spain because General Franco (of Spain) wasn’t interested in having international associations in the country. However, when Garcia returned to Spain he received much press and General Franco became aware of him. When President Bird was finally able to get an audience with General Franco, he received approval for Lions to establish themselves in Spain. At this meeting, General Franco recognized the Lions as the group that “gave the dog to someone in Barcelona.” The association of Lions of Spain and Leader Dog continues to this day. Later that decade, on May 10, 1968, Leader Dog received permission to use the Lions emblem by Lions International.
The Lions statue was moved to the Downtown Rochester facility during one of the many renovations of our facilities.
The Lions' continued support of Leader Dog was celebrated in 1972 with the addition of a life-size Lion to the Rochester Hills campus. The 2,200 pound statue was installed by the Shelby Township Lions and was designed and constructed by Gan Jacobsen (who became a long-time Trustee of Leader Dog). During this decade, Pock, who was still serving as Executive Director of Leader Dog, was twice elected to the Lions International Board (1974–75, 1978–79).
Throughout the '80s, '90s and into the 21st century, the Lions have acted as the backbone of Leader Dog. Lions Clubs throughout the world have continued to support us and our students financially, they have brought thousands of people who are visually impaired through our doors, and they have continued to serve on our Board of Trustees. They are puppy raisers, volunteers, breeding host families and so much more. Many recipients of Leader Dog services have become Lions after experiencing their support and mission firsthand.
To this day, the mission of the Lions, “We serve,” perfectly complements the Leader Dog mission of enhancing the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired.