George Ivey Jr. was 14 the first time his father, George Sr., took him to an uptown hotel for a meeting of charitable-minded civic and business leaders who were raising money for the needy.
The year was 1937, deep in the Great Depression, and there were about 120 men who ate lunch and offered up what they could.
Young George learned that day that no matter how tough times are, you “look after your neighbors.”
In the intervening 75 years – with the exception of two years on Navy ships in World War II – Ivey has been seated in the crowd when the generous Good Fellows Club met.
Wednesday, at 89, the retired department store executive was there again at the club’s 95th luncheon, clearly the longest-attending member among the club’s largest crowd of about 1,275 members and guests.
Like the women of Good Friends on Tuesday – who broke record attendance and donations – the record Good Fellows crowd at the Charlotte Convention Center translated into a record haul of $352,405.71, reported club administrator Carla Parks.
Added to the $156,614 that Good Friends raised, that’s $509,019.54 raised in a just a few minutes this week.
Every dime will go to help the working poor in 2013. Each charity dispenses its own donations throughout the county.
“I’m just blown away,” said Parks, who also organizes the yearly event. “The generosity is incredible.”
Frank Dowd, Good Fellows president, was blown away too – but nervous.
Before the 8-minute collection by 15 “bag boys” that included N.C. Gov.-elect Pat McCrory and Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, Dowd had challenged the club to raise to raise at least $300,000.
“I am overjoyed for the club and the people who need the money,” Dowd said. “On the other hand, that’s a pretty high bar to meet or exceed next year.”
The club’s been raising money at its December luncheon since 1917. That year a group of men at Charlotte’s Second Presbyterian Church launched the yearly give-fest to help working families that had fallen on hard times.
During Dowd’s tenure as president, he has worked to bring new blood into the organization.
About half those gathered Wednesday appeared to be guests. Dowd urged them to pay the $85 yearly dues and join.
He also urged them to donate.
The collection came after Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and former Carolina Panther Mike Rucker illustrated how the club helps an average 1,200 families a year.
Hendrick told the crowd about Jamar and Donna. They had two children and were told by their doctor they couldn’t have anymore. But Donna got pregnant and had to take a medical leave from work.
Meantime, Jamar’s mother got sick, and he spent time looking after her. She died and they had to pay for funeral expenses.
They got behind on bills, until Good Fellows stepped in. They paid the bills and “turned the lights back on,” Hendrick said.
“These are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who never had to ask for help,” he said. “They’re not looking for a hand-out. They’re looking for a bridge.”
Rucker said he’d given money to groups that help the poor, but never saw the end results.
Then he visited Melvin and Keisha, who have three sons and a daughter, all doing well.
Keisha’s a substitute teacher, Melvin worked a temp agency. “Since 2003, they’d paid their bills and rent on time,” Rucker said. “This is a wholesome family.”
But after Melvin was laid off, they fell behind on the rent.
When Rucker visited them, Keisha cried, fearing her children would come home to find padlocks on the door – or they’d be homeless and forced to go to shelters.
Good Fellows paid the bills and rent. “When Melvin found a job, they were ready to go because of this organization,” Rucker said.
Both urged the gathered to dig deep.
As the bag boys worked the crowd, Charlotte developers Johnny Harris and Pete Pappas stuck to a tradition at the luncheons, entertaining the crowd with Charlotte-flavored humor.
• A sampling:
Harris: All right, we need those bag boys up and we need to clearly raise more money than the DNC (Democratic National Committee) did a few months ago.
Peter, what does the DNC stand for?
Pappas: I probably ought to check, but I think it’s Did Not Collect.
Harris: I hear that the county commissioners are going to give (County Manager) Harry Jones a pay raise after all. But his windfall will be wiped out when he has his house reappraised.
• And this:
Harris: All right Pete, what do you get when you cross Robert Pittenger and Jim Pendergraph?
Pappas: Joint winners of the new lottery game “Gutterball.”
Pappas: What do you get, Johnny, when you cross Michael Jordan and Cam Newton?
Harris: A 10-win season. Boy, Jerry (Richardson) is going to kick my butt for that one.”
Dowd had little explanation for the huge haul.
There were 210 more contributors seated than at last year’s event. And the club, he said, got “some extraordinarily large gifts.”
Otherwise, “I’m just guessing people are feeling a little more optimistic this year,” Dowd said. “If I knew, I’d bottle it up and use it next year.”