October 29, 1984 12:00 PM

Last month on a Sunday night in tiny (pop. 2,400) Zilwaukee, Mich., near Saginaw, a ritual bonfire lit the sky. As the fire danced against the dark heavens 35 men circled the smoky pyre drinking beer, eating barbecued chicken and throwing strange objects into the flames. The ceremony had started at noon and would last until 3 a.m. The men were neither devil worshipers nor midwestern warlocks. The truth was even more horrible. They were—gasp!—the local Jaycees. Chapter #373 was literally going up in smoke.

The bonfire was the group’s response to a July 3 unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened Jaycee doors to women. The Zilwaukee group became the only chapter in the nation to decide to self-immolate rather than liberate their all-boys’ club. The offerings fed into the fire were their mementos—banners, by-laws, jackets, shirts and even hard won awards.

“Why save anything?” asks ex-president Jack B. Tany, 28. “We’re dead. Finished. History.” Sports editor for the weekly Saginaw Township Times, Tany explains that in a 17-to-3 vote the 23-member group chose to disband rather than comply because “they wouldn’t be able to relax, cuss and stuff like that at meetings. One of the boys said that when he gets emotional, he yells. But when girls get emotional, they cry. He didn’t think he could handle that.” Tany describes the group’s last hurrah as “a real bash. We did a lot of guy stuff—watched football on TV, played pool and cards, sat around the fire and talked about the good times.”

After the Jaycees dissolved, Debra Hahn, 27, ex-president of the local Jaycee Women, once called Jaycettes, formed the new Zilwaukee Area Jaycees. Half male and half female, the 24-member group includes seven ex-Jaycees and nine ex-Jaycettes. Hahn would have preferred a marriage with the all-male chapter. “I went to Jack Tany and asked, ‘Jack, why couldn’t we have tried the merger? Why?’ ” says Hahn. “I think they were afraid that I would walk in there with 17 female votes, take over and put up lace curtains!” explains the mother of two. But Hahn didn’t want to challenge the men. “Actually, most people were happy with the separate organizations,” she admits. “But it went through the Supreme Court, and you can’t change that.”

The court ruling came in response to a Minnesota suit challenging the males-only policy, and when the U.S. Jaycees held their national meeting in mid August, they voted to admit women in all 50 states. Michigan’s representatives voted for the change. Tany is disgruntled because for about 10 years the national organization had fought admitting women, spending close to $1,000,000 in court. “They pound it into our heads that this is an all-male group,” he says, “and then all of a sudden turn around and say ‘women are in.’ It’s hypocritical.”

Tany also regrets losing the $200,000 building that the Jaycees dedicated last June. The chapter’s bylaws willed the property to the nonprofit Zilwaukee Festival Committee. “We actually built the foundation and poured the cement,” he says. “I personally dug the trenches for the bathrooms. I sure couldn’t see women doing that.” He also couldn’t see women involved in the partying that followed the hard work: “I know damn well that if we had merged, all the guys would have sat on one side of the room and all the girls on the other, just like at a junior high dance.”

But the state Jaycees say that the Zilwaukee chapter spent too much time on their building. “They started concentrating so much on maintaining it they weren’t involved in leadership training, and membership dropped from 99 in 1980 to 16 last June,” notes state president Dennis Keith. He thinks the new chapter is “a step ahead,” calling Hahn a “real class act.”

Though she’s busy starting new Jaycee projects like Thanksgiving dinner for some 200 senior citizens, Hahn is still upset. “I couldn’t believe that they would burn all of that stuff. To me that was very, very immature. They could have given it to us,” she points out. “They lost their building, their bingo franchise and their whole organization. And they didn’t even care because their pride was so strong. They didn’t want women and that was that. That hurt, I think, even worse.”

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