A tribute to Lions of the past

George Bell carrying the Lions Banner at the Silver Anniversary Dinner.
George Bell carrying the Lions Banner at the Silver Anniversary Dinner.
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IN this month’s look at Morpeth Lions Club, CHRIS OFFORD remembers former members and pays tribute to their work.

Christmas has gone by in a rush and the New Year is here. This time of the year is comparatively quiet for Lions’ activities, but after the work on the Christmas food parcels and the toy distribution, we need a bit of a breather.

Therefore, I thought that I would take the opportunity to look back at some of the former Morpeth Lions who have made a special input in the local community.

Morpeth Lions Club was formed in 1972 with David Smethurst as the first President. David was a member of Newcastle Lions Club and it sponsored the new club in Morpeth. David was the local NatWest bank manager and well known in the town.

He was followed as President by Bill Surtees. David has long since retired from Lions, but lives in Longframlington and still keeps in touch with some of our longer-serving members.

Together, David and Bill provided the firm foundation for the club for its subsequent 40 years.

Our third President in 1974/75 was Stan Sullivan. Stan was still very much an active Lion when I joined the club in the mid 1980s.

Stan was born in Newcastle and suffered much poverty in his youth. His life changed though when he and his brother Joe joined the Army and became members of the Parachute Brigade.

In September 1944, Stan and Joe found themselves as part of Operation Market Garden defending the ‘Bridge Too Far’ at Arnhem. After 10 days of fighting on and around the bridge, Stan was ordered to evacuate and he escaped across the river.

Unfortunately, he had to leave Joe looking after the wounded and Joe subsequently spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. Stan knew how much Joe suffered as a POW and was never comfortable about the fact he was the brother who managed to escape.

Stan came out of the Army determined to help those less fortunate than himself. He set up a Scout troop and that in turn led him to the Lions. Stan was a committed and active member, but not one for the necessary national administration which comes with being part of an international organisation.

Back in the 1980s, as Lions, we were asked to buy a brick for the new headquarters at Birmingham. Well, Stan was adamant that we should not buy a brick for a new headquarters and he often returned to the subject in subsequent years.

This was odd really as he was a most generous person. He remembered the Lions in his Will and left a sum of money for us to drink a toast to his memory at Christmas.

Being a thirsty lot this money ran out a few years back, but his nephew Nigel Wright, who is also a Morpeth Lion, has kept up the tradition from his funds.

One of the most well-known Lions was George Bell, our eighth President. George was in the RAF and then had a career in education, locally at Ponteland College.

As well as President of Morpeth Lions in 1979/80, George went on to become a Lions District Governor. George represented Morpeth Lions on the national and international stage at several Lion Conventions and made friends and contacts throughout the world.

It is interesting that we can be at a Lions meeting anywhere in the country or abroad and can get asked if we knew George. He was honoured by Morpeth Lions by being the only member of the club to date to receive the prestigious Melvin Jones Fellowship Award for services to Lionism.

In later years, George pursued his hobby of photography and supplied the Morpeth Herald with countless photographs of local events, many of which still appear in the Herald under Images of Yesteryear.

Our ninth President was Dick Gee, taking office in 1980/81. He was a big man with a big heart and a totally genuine person. He had led a full and interesting life.

While at school, Dick won a scholarship to Dame Allan’s in Newcastle, which was some achievement at that time. Dick enjoyed and was proud of his time at Dame Allan’s, where he excelled in all sports and was a member of the school rugby and cricket teams. After leaving school, Dick started working for the Tax Office until just before the Second World War, when he trained as an RAF navigator. Dick had a distinguished career in the RAF and was posted to Bomber Squadrons. He was later awarded the DFC.

Dick never did anything by halves. He flew on more than 60 missions, when the average was 30. He crash-landed twice. His second crash in 1944 in Denmark, while on a mission to drop supplies to the Danish Resistance, led to a life-long association and friendship with families who worked for the Resistance movement and who helped him and other members of his crew to escape to Sweden. The Danish people never forgot Dick and treated him as a hero.

He returned to Denmark on several occasions, where he was treated like royalty, and on one occasion was invited to meet the Queen of Denmark.

Several articles in Danish magazines were written about his escapades and he took part in a Danish radio version of This Is Your Life.

Following his discharge from the RAF, Dick returned to the Tax Office, where he worked throughout the North East and Cumbria as Regional Personnel Officer and a Tax Inspector. Dick continued his association with the RAF as a Reserve and at one time was the Treasurer for Morpeth Air Cadets.

Dick had many interests; he was a National Park Warden for 30 years and the Treasurer for Northgate Hospital League of Friends.

Dick joined Morpeth Lions Club in 1972 and was one of the founder members of the club. He really enjoyed the Lions and I know he valued the friendships he made.

He always took a full part in club activities and was a familiar face, fund-raising on the streets of Morpeth.

In later years, although his health deteriorated, he still continued to play a full part in club activities with the unstinting support of his wife Agnes. He was the ‘behind the scenes’ Lion for the Meet the Lions evening at Christmas time, when more than 250 elderly people from Morpeth enjoy a night of entertainment. In fact. in those days. Dick was Meet the Lions.

Our 12th President was Bob MacAlister.

Bob was a Glaswegian with strong affinities with Oban.

He was a strong supporter of the Scottish Lions Clubs and was always in demand south of the border for addressing the haggis, notably at Alnwick Lions Burns Night.

After a career in the Navy, he went into the printing business, but he and wife Val also ran a guest house in Cottingwood Lane.

He helped set up the now disbanded Morpeth Disabled Club, along with Gina Fleming and fostered a working relationship between the Lions and the Disabled Club.

Bob was passionate about Lions, but his memory was not the best. He had so many irons in the fire, he often forgot where he was meant to be, including notably missing his own Lions’ Zone Meeting, which he was due to chair and had arranged.

He was in charge at our District Convention in Newcastle and had to seat 300 for dinner. Everyone was found a seat, apart from Bob, who had to give his up to make way for an unexpected late arrival.

Having been in the Navy, another passion of Bob’s was sailing. He was closely involved with sail training from Newcastle Quayside.

One year, he organised a trip on the Malcolm Miller sail training ship out of Southampton and persuaded some Lions to take ‘a gentle cruise to Cherbourg’. However, during the night a Force 10 gale set in.

Morpeth Lion Nigel Wright still comes out in a cold sweat when he thinks about that trip and hanging on to any rope for dear life for much of his watch that night.

There are many other former Lions, but space prevents me from continuing. In previous articles, you may have read some of the exploits of our 17th President Roger Atkinson, who is still sadly missed. Another who sticks in my mind was Terry Hails, our fifth President and quite a character.

Last year, the club donated a seat in memory of our former colleagues and it is outside Iceland in Bridge Street for all to enjoy.

There are also two other seats in the park opposite Mafeking roundabout dedicated in memory of George Bell and Dick Gee, who both lived in Stobhill.