The eternal Optimists
Ryan Summerlin December 8, 2012
When Mike Smith arrived in Summit County with his family in 1971, things were very different.
“There wasn’t a stoplight in Summit County,” Smith said, and the sidewalks in Breckenridge were all made of wood.
What struck Smith the most, however, was the lack of youth-based activities.
“There was nothing like that the kids could participate in up here in the ’70s,” Smith said. “The children had nothing to do.”
This inspired Smith to become one of the founding members of the Summit-Lake Dillon Optimists Club, and also its first president. The Optimists, an international organization dedicated to “bringing out the best in kids” through community service programs, celebrated its 40th anniversary this week.
The first steps made by the Summit-Lake Dillon Optimists Club were to establish a Little League baseball team and a Boy Scouts troop. However, the teams had no facilities, so Smith and his fellow Optimists got creative. The area that now is the Breckenridge golf course was an open field back then.
“We got one of the ranchers around here to let us use a (leveler) and we pulled it behind my Blazer,” Smith said. “We leveled it as best as we could and the kids played baseball.”
In addition to increasing opportunities for Summit County youth, the Summit-Lake Dillon Optimists Club made history in another way – by introducing the nation’s first female Optimist Club member.
“We broke the gender barrier,” Smith said.
At the time, the national organizers of the club weren’t pleased with the development.
“They wrote us and told us we couldn’t do that,” said Smith, “and we said ‘we’re going to do it, and if we can’t, we’re going to change our name to the Summit County Good Guy’s Club.'”
The national club backed down, and the Summit County Optimists went back to focusing on their community projects.
Now, the Optimists are involved in athletic, artistic and scholastic projects throughout the county. They support more than 300 basketball players, as well as 75 volleyball players and 132 chess club members. They routinely sponsor contests in writing and public speaking.
“We have grown with the community; we certainly have,” said Smith.
The Optimists celebrated their 40th year anniversary at a dinner Wednesday, at which Smith was a keynote speaker.
“We had a great time,” said Mark Nunn, current president of the Summit-Lake Dillon Optimists Club. “It’s all designed to support and enhance the youth of the locations we live in. … In terms of Summit County, the idea was to provide opportunities for the youth that were not readily available.”
Both Nunn and Smith feel that they have been successful in this mission.
“One of the things I’m most proud of … is the fact that no kids will ever have to pay to participate in our programs,” said Smith. “I look back 40 years ago … (and) many of us as parents, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. … We just did the best that we could do.”
The Optimists have financed youth-oriented projects, such as the backstops at the Summit Middle School baseball field, which the Optimists installed.
“Anything that we do, there is never a circumstance where a child or parent is asked for a penny,” Nunn said. “It’s all done at the expense of the club.”
While their projects have grown in scope and size, said Smith, their membership has dwindled. Currently there are around 40-50 members of the Summit-Lake Dillon Optimists Club.
“We would really like to see that grow,” said Nunn. “The amount we can do is related to how many troops we have on the ground, and we’d like to do a lot more.”