Through 122 years, a force for abstinence Convention opens today of Woman's Christian Temperance Union

August 04, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union opens its annual convention in Indianapolis today. It is not expecting a crowd.

"I thought you died years ago," Paul Scott hears people say about the union.

Scott -- a 48-year-old registered nurse from Glendale, Calif., and one of 20 men who are honorary members of his area's 140-member Highland Park chapter -- looks forward to the week in Indianapolis: the lectures on social service; the tour of the city; the intercollegiate oratory competition on temperance; the gathering to honor this year's poster and essay contest winners, whose topic can be alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

A new event will be the award ceremony for the best sermon on temperance. Already the buzz is that first prize will go to an 83-year-old minister from Kentucky.

But the climax of the convention is always presidents' night. Chapter heads, dressed in traditional white, will parade through the ballroom of the Adams Mark Hotel, carrying their state flags.

What was once an army 400,000 strong has dwindled to a small but energetic campaign of 20,000 or so nationwide. Most members are senior citizens, says national President Rachel Kelly, 71, who calls one chapter leader "a younger woman" in her 50s.

Iron-willed on the subject of young people and drink, they continue to fight for total abstinence from alcohol and drugs for children and adults, just as the union has since it was founded in 1874.

The idea for a temperance group came about a year earlier in Hillsboro, Ohio, when the towns-women got together and decided to close down the saloons.

Their husbands were spending too much time and money there, and their drinking was the source of family problems, explains Michael Vitucci, the union's national press director.

"Those women got down on their knees and prayed," says Kelly. "At the time they had no other source of help. The government certainly was not behind them."

The women of Hillsboro were so successful they decided to organize. At a gathering in Lake Chautauqua, near Buffalo, N.Y., they met with other like-minded women and named Annie Wittenmyer their first president.

Since the end of Prohibition in 1933, educating children about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs has been the union's top priority.

It has its own publication arm, Signal Press, which sends out pamphlets to public schools across the country. Some colleges, including the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy, subscribe to WCTU literature.

Beyond the schools, the union supports a few summer camps for abused children and homes for transients or unwed mothers.

Finances for all these activities are limited. WCTU President Kelly says members are the chief source of contributions, and dues are only $10 per year. "We want everyone to be able to afford to join," she says.

Men always have been welcome in the group, although they cannot vote or hold elected office.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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