Nearly 45 years ago, the Optimist Club of Wahpeton and Breckenridge formed with 13 members. In the decades since its May 1975 charter, the club has grown, partnered with community organizations and provided or assisted in activities for countless youth.
Two members of that original 13 are still active in the Twin Towns Area: Jim Sturdevant, who went on to serve as Wahpeton’s mayor, and businessman Jim Oliver. Oliver, who turns 69 next week, shared some memories of the Optimist Club’s early days.
“I’ve been president of the club, a couple of times actually,” Oliver said.
In early 1975, Oliver was running the Embassy, a rooftop restaurant at 500 Dakota Ave., Wahpeton. Members of the Optimist Club of Fargo visited the Embassy, seeing if there was any interest of getting a Twin Towns Area chapter going.
Given the suggestion to have at least 20 members by May 1, 1975, Oliver and fellow would-be Optimists began building enthusiasm.
“We went out, talked to a lot of people,” Oliver recalled. “We’d hear, ‘Well, I’m already in Kiwanis,’ ‘I’m already in Rotary,’ ‘I’m too busy,’ ‘I don’t have time,’ ‘I can’t get off,’ because we’d already decided we’d be a noon club. There were breakfast clubs and whatever at the time.”
May 1 was getting closer. About a week before the charter date, the Wahpeton-Breckenridge club had 17 members. That was good enough for the Optimists in Fargo, who ended up surprising the upstream members.
“The day came, we were there and they came down. We only had 13 show up. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I said, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ They said, ‘Oh, we’ll charter you. We just tell you 20 (so you’ll) go out and get members,’” Oliver said.
While Oliver and Sturdevant are the last charter members, the Optimist Club of Wahpeton-Breckenridge has no shortage of long timers. Rather than forget anybody, Oliver said it’s not unusual for members to have been involved for several decades.
Since the beginning, the Optimist Club has been involved in youth activities and programs.
“(It could be) hockey, softball, Little League — working with the little kids was pretty much our push,” Oliver said.
Fundraising led to a few adventures, like when the Optimists held an “Icebreaker” contest. A 2x4, 20 feet long, was fed through a drilled hole at the Red River’s surface. It had a rope wrapped around it. The rope ran to the Dakota Avenue Bridge, connecting to the plug of a clock which hung at a light pole.
The idea was that when the ice melted, the 2x4 would drop down, resulting in the clock being unplugged, a final time being recorded and the winning contestant receiving a 19-inch color TV.
“At the time, this was a really nice prize,” Oliver said. “We went along and pretty soon, one morning I get a call from a guy. He says, ‘Jim, I hate to tell you this, but the ice went out at the water plant. Have you checked downtown?’”
The 2x4 was standing in place. It had been fed directly into mud, meaning that although the ice was gone, the clock was still running. Eventually, the plug was pulled and a winner was determined. The TV had a $250 value and the Optimists had sold approximately $230 in tickets.
Luck came more than once: the winner was not only a friend of the Optimists, but he had actually already bought the TV in question and didn’t want another one. A trade was worked out, with the winner receiving $100, the Optimists receiving the proceeds and youth receiving the assistance.
“That was the last time we had an icebreaker contest,” Oliver said.
Oliver has long been proud of the Optimists’ work to benefit residents throughout Richland County, North Dakota and Wilkin County, Minnesota. Over one 10-year period, gaming was able to generate $1.4 million in raised funds.
“We helped build bleachers and lights at Fairmount baseball fields. In Hankinson, we put up scoreboards. The hockey association bought a Zamboni. There was a lot of work at the zoo with that money. We helped a lot of kids,” Oliver said.
The Optimists had a policy of benefiting organizations, not individuals. There was one exception, Oliver recalled. A Breckenridge, Minnesota youth competed in a local golf tournament, followed by the state, regional and national matches.
“Ryan didn’t make it further than national, but he was impressed by the winner,” Oliver said. “He had a coach, a psychologist to keep him grounded and everything. He told us, ‘Yeah, and he has a name you’ll never forget — Tiger Woods.’”