Photos courtesy of the Lake Highlands Women’s League

When Barbara Hunt, the original president of Lake Highlands Women’s League, attended the funeral of league co-founder Nell Guest in 2007, she approached Guest’s son, David Atwood, to reintroduce herself and express condolences.

“I know you,” he said. “You’re the Queen of Lake Highlands.”

Hunt lives in a Lake Highlands retirement home, and the league is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The organization has donated $1,965,000 in college scholarships to hundreds of graduating Lake Highlands High School seniors and $1,128,000 to support projects, schools and agencies in Lake Highlands. The group has 100 members, and now there’s a wait list.

Hunt’s idea to form the league began simply. She had one child at home, one at Wallace Elementary, one at Lake Highlands Junior High and one at Lake Highlands High School. A neighborhood meeting was called because some kids were roller skating in the shopping center at Audelia and Kingsley [now Walnut Hill]. Nobody knew who to contact to complain. Suddenly, Hunt was in charge.

She called a few friends, and charter members Betsy Dryden, Nancy Goebel, Jane Hamilton, Marilyn Hogan, Peg Koelling, Mary Nell Royer and Martha Scott joined.

“We had garden clubs, we had book clubs, we had PTAs, but we didn’t have a central civic group to look after the neighborhood and promote it,” Hunt says.

The priority from the beginning was to fundraise for scholarships. The first event also raised money to furnish the proposed Skyline Recreation Center, later renamed the Lake Highlands North Recreation Center.

The women drew up bylaws limiting membership to 50 and requiring a sponsor to vouch that each member had pride in the community and was willing to work hard. They also developed civic and cultural goals and planned museum visits and overnight trips to historic places.

Members hosted a casino party, complete with Las Vegas-style gambling.

“At the end of the night, someone took the roulette wheel,” recalls Hunt with a smile. “It was a toy, but we had to pay $50 to the company we rented it from. A couple of weeks later, a man called to confess and return it. I told him I was leaving the house, but he could drop it on my porch. I didn’t want to know who it was. When I returned it to the league, my friends gave me a hard time. They said I was the thief.”

In 1978, member Nancy England proposed the home tour, a fundraiser which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year. This year’s “Holiday in the Highlands” tour, held annually the first Friday in December, requires almost 200 volunteers to prepare meals for 1,000 luncheon visitors, sell homemade baked goods and host a bazaar.

Carol Baker, president in 2006 and 2007, recalls what became known to some as “the wedding curse” and others as “the wedding bonus.” After committing to serve as the organization’s president, their children announced their engagement.

“My son got married in 2006, and my daughter wed in 2007,” Baker says. “The joke became, ‘If you want your kid to get married, just be president of Women’s League.’”

Husbands were enlisted to set up tables and serve as waiters during the home tour. One husband, a dentist, dressed up as Santa and sat on a commode at a home tour house. “They went to all extremes to help us be successful,” Hunt says.

“The contributions we have made to the scholarship recipients have changed generations in our community,” says former president Sharon Worthy. “That is one thing I am most proud of in our work.”

Current president Heather Haskins says almost 90% of current members work full or part time, a big change from 1969. Looking back, Hunt is proud of following through on her idea to form the league, but she’s not surprised by what the group has accomplished.

“We intentionally chose women who hadn’t sat at home knitting. We chose active, organized women who were doers in the community,” Hunt says. “We wanted members to be proud to say we’d given scholarships to kids or a piano to the rec center or art to the library.”

Hunt thrilled about the spray park at the rec center and many other projects. “Women’s League founders were visionary,” Haskins says. “There were other organizations in the city they could have joined, and did, but wanted to impact where they lived. They wanted their kids to grow up in a vibrant community.”

Tickets for the 41st home tour are $20 and available from any league member or via LHWL.org.