It was several months before Wall Street crashed, ushering in the financial maelstrom of the 1929. In Tucson, so goes the story, Grace Bakewell called her friend Clara Hughes with a grand idea: “How would you like to help me start a Junior League?”

The two didn’t quite start a Junior League chapter that year, but in February 1933 what started as a phone call became a reality. The Junior League of Tucson was born.

The history of the women’s community-service group is neatly captured in the group’s new 100-page book, “Grand Dames & Great Causes: The Way We Were ... A History of the Junior League of Tucson, 1933-2013.”

It’s a great compilation of the group’s contributions to Tucson and the women who made it happen. It is also a wonderful lens into Tucson’s past, all compiled by Junior League members Emily Morrison, Carrie Durham and Angela DiFuccia.

The JLT, as its sometimes known, was founded as the Service Club with 20 charter members. Its first president was Rosetta Belin.

Its initial service project was starting a day nursery “in a little building north of the Masonic Temple” on South Scott Avenue. The group then opened a lending library in Steinfeld’s Department Store, which at the time was on North Stone Avenue.

The Service Club raised money through raffles, benefit dances, rummage sales and card parties. The following year, milk bottles were placed downtown where Tucsonans could donate coins, but, the books relates, the bottles “were said to have been ‘emptied by some scoundrel’ for a loss of $25!”

In 1933, a Western Union telegram arrived at the desk of the society editor for the Arizona Daily Star with the news that the Junior League of Tucson had been admitted to the national organization. The league had 50 charter members and it settled in the old Santa Rita Hotel on East Broadway as its headquarters.

In the 1940s, the war and postwar years, the Junior League of Tucson became increasingly active in civic and youth affairs. The group raised funds for the Red Cross and purchased war bonds, organized social events such as its successful Follies, and its members participated in other local organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the VA Hospital, Pima County Medical Auxiliary and Planned Parenthood.

It ended the decade with a continuing focus on youth and the arts. But the work was not inclusive, the book says. One of the group’s rejected ideas was the Bilingual Education Project in a time when “650 children were known to start school not speaking English,” the book notes.

In the ensuing decades, the Junior League would continue to grow alongside Tucson. In the 1950s, the group doubled its membership and tripled its income from fundraising events, including its annual rummage sale. It forged closer ties with the University of Arizona and took on more charitable efforts for Tucson’s children.

Still, the league lacked wider public attention, the book says, “because it seems the public — and the press — still thought of the League as 4/5th social and 1/5th good works.” That perception still holds today, the book adds.

The Junior League has touched nearly every aspect of Tucson in the arts, education, charity and social activities. The group also grappled with questions of how to adapt to Tucson’s changing demographics. Back in the late 1980s, the league reflected and explored ways to diversify its membership by recruiting more women of color. It understood that if it were to continue, the league had to widen its door.

The group has continued its mission described in its early years: “To foster interest among its members in social, economic, educational, cultural and civic conditions of the community and to make efficient their volunteer service.”

In March, the league honored 80 members who have made a difference in our community. Members hope the day will come when the group celebrates 100 years.

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is the editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be contacted at or at 573-4187.