|Harold 'Pudge' Nielsen sports one of his many Lions Club vests. The vests are adorned with some of the thousands of pins the Helper Lions Club member has collected during the last four decades.|
The end of an era will mark the new year in Helper as the 57-year-old chapter of the Lions Club closes down business.
For more than half of a century, the philanthropic group has been hiding Easter eggs and providing Santa with bags of candy.
Last Friday, the veteran members gathered for one last time in the Helper Civic Auditorium to make sure the bearded one would have enough treats to give the children who clamored onto his lap sharing their Christmas wish lists.
"When the bill for next year comes in, I will write across it that the Helper Lions Club chapter will be disbanded," said Harold "Pudge" Nielsen, 85, the club's secretary and a 55-year-member. "For me, it's just hell."
Nielsen shared his memories and stories in a room at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum that stands as a memorial to the civic organization and four decades of Nielsen's life.
Wood and glass cabinets display more than 2,000 Lions Club pins from across the nation and the world.
"I am part of the pin traders club, where Lions members get together to sell and trade their pins," said Nielsen. "We go to different cities to meet."
Nielsen's collection is as diverse as the members of the global organization, which boasts 1.3 million participants worldwide.
Each state and country creates pins that represent their area, so the items for trading can be anything from a Pennsylvania frying pan to a Canadian red, white and blue maple leaf.
But whatever the form the metal make take, it's a good bet that there is at least one in Nielsen's display cases.
"There was only one I didn't have and that was from Russia," he said. "I told another member that and he said 'you do now.'"
After Dec. 31 when the Helper chapter ceases to exist, the colorful collection in the museum will stay as a reminder as a testament to a lifetime of service work.
Nielsen said the chapter's demise has been about a four to five year process and centers mainly around the advancing age of the remaining nine members and finances.
"People just can't afford to keep it going," he said. "We used to do fundraisers every year such as selling calendars and brooms or whatever we could. But we just haven't been able to do it anymore."
Nielson explained that the more than 50-year Santa event at the civic auditorium costs the club a chunk of change to provide the hundreds of bags of candy that are handed out to local youngsters.
Last Friday, he and his comrades came with close to 300 paper bags full of sweets for children visiting Santa.
|Santa sits court while his helpers from the Helper Lions Club hand out candy in the background. Last Friday was the final Helper Lions Club sponsored event as the group will disband on Dec. 31 after 57 years.|
"We handed out more than 250 bags and let Santa take a dozen or so to hand out in the neighborhood," said Nielsen.
The annual Santa visit has been a steadfast part of the life of Helper, according to Mark Montoya, a member of the Utah's Christmas Town committee.
"For as long as I can remember, Santa has been coming to the auditorium," he said. "I remember when I was a kid my mom taking me there to get candy."
Montoya had heard of the impending dissolution of the chapter and said that it will be sad to see them go.
"They are such a big part of the community," he said.
As for the red-suited one's continuing arrival in Helper, Montoya said, "We will have to be the torch bearers."
Christmas wasn't the only holiday associated with the chapter in town.
Every Easter, the local Lions Club members got together, boiled and painted eggs and hid them in the Helper City Park, according to Nielsen.
"We would get about 400 to 500 kids," he said.
The Lions Club International was founded by businessman Melvin Jones with the intention of motivating businessmen into giving back to their communities.
The first meeting was conducted on June 7, 1917 in Chicago, Ill..
During its 90-year history, the international organization has grown into a global entity with international influence.
The group is credited with helping the United Nations form the Non-Governmental Organizations sections in 1945, according to information from the group's website www.lionsclubs.org.
The global aspects of the organization played a big role in Nielsen's life.
He and his wife became world travelers as a result of his membership in the club.
"I've climbed the Eiffel Tower and rode the gondolas in Venice," said Nielsen with a smile.
The sights and sounds of Europe and Tokyo were a far cry from Nielsen's early life in the coal camps in Spring Canyon and his life as an engineer on the railroad.
With the chapter gone, the long-retired Nielsen said he will spend more time overseeing the model train displays at the museum in downtown Helper.
But the memories of lifelong service work will be just upstairs to remind him.
"I'm so sad to see it stop," said Nielsen. "I mean, how many people can say they have climbed the Eiffel Tower?"