Circle K: The Start of Service

Circle K: The Start of Service

Staff Reports

As a Jesuit Catholic institution that has been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for eight consecutive years and has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 25 colleges in the nation for service learning, there is no doubt that John Carroll exemplifies community service, faith that does justice, and being men and women for and with others. But you might be surprised to learn how JCU’s commitment to these Jesuit principles has evolved.

During the mid-’60s, student service at John Carroll was mostly focused on service to the campus. “There was a service function on campus, but it wasn’t largely felt in the community,” says Col. William Kirk ’69, founding member of Circle K and a retired attorney for the U.S. Army. “Our impetus was to go out into the world and serve others more broadly.”

In the fall of 1964, Melvin Lindsey, then president of the Kiwanis Club of Cedar Center, approached the dean of men, L. Morgan Lavin ’56, and offered to sponsor a Circle K Club at Carroll with an emphasis on community service. The club was chartered in April of 1965 with 16 members, and its service mission became a reality in 1967 when it became an independent fraternity operating separately from the Kiwanis Club.

Circle K gained traction quickly. By the 1969-70 academic year, the club comprised about 40 members who did off-campus service projects, helped at athletic events, and staged legendary parties. Student Union recognized Circle K as organization of the year in 1970, just three and half years after the club’s first meeting.

“In 1967, Circle K and a Christian life organization, Cardinal Newman Sodality, were the only organizations whose scope of service expanded off campus into the community,” says Mike Meehan ’71, former Circle K member, former vice president of Student Union, and current general counsel for the Cleveland Clinic’s regional hospitals.

“Supplying manpower for ongoing scheduled community projects just wasn’t being done then,” agreed Jim Regan ’70, a former Circle K president and retired sales manager at American Fidelity and Cordis Corp. “Student activism in this regard got going with Circle K.”

“Circle K members were visiting sick and injured kids at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, doing home rehab projects in the inner city, and helping the Kiwanis Club raise money for the poor while most frats were having a good time on campus,” Regan says. With Sodality members visiting mental health patients at Cleveland State Mental Hospital, social activism on Carroll’s campus soon became contagious. Another service club, Student Community Action Program, sprang up in 1968 to tutor inner-city kids, and Cleveland commuter students began organizing efforts in their neighborhood communities.

“I was a pretty self-centered 19-year-old interested in sleeping late, avoiding unpleasant classes, goofing off with the guys, and looking to meet girls at weekend parties,” Regan says. “However, the idea of helping others by volunteering for off-campus service work immediately appealed to me because times were changing. I’m thankful Circle K awoke in me the notion that service to others was important and rewarding. I got more out of it than I gave.”

“Circle K changed me dramatically,” Meehan says. “I had powerful experiences that reinforced the importance of being a man for others.” Being a member of Circle K—which aimed to build character and provide leadership while serving campus and the community—also fostered fellowship. Many members realized service projects could be fun. They worked together for a common goal and formed special bonds. “I was your typical awkward freshman,” Kirk says. “But I wanted to be a professional and realized I needed to get out of my shell, so I looked for organizations that could help me do that. The established fraternities weren’t a fit for me.

Circle K gave me opportunities to become more social, do worthwhile things, and develop solid relationships.

“The club quickly developed a social aspect,” Regan says. “So we had off-campus parties in the fall and spring each year, which were great fun. I made dear, lifelong friends, and we all wound up attending each other’s weddings throughout the years.” The club also started to become known for ushering athletic events and wearing gold blazers with its fraternity insignia. Members grew into a tight-knit group and became friends for life. “I’m still in touch with many of them today,” Kirk says. “When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma last year, the Circle K guys kept in touch with me and gave me encouragement.”

The brotherhood forged by membership in Circle K is one that has never broken. Photo: John Carroll University


Circle K at Carroll was the only service fraternity in Ohio during the late ’60s and early ’70s, according to Baran, former president of JCU’s Alumni Association Pittsburgh Chapter. Circle K at other Ohio colleges and universities existed simply as service clubs, which were part of the well-known Kiwanis Club and high school version Key Clubs.

During the 1977-78 academic year, Circle K members voted unanimously to change its name to Sigma Delta Kappa to better reflect its position as an established fraternity instead of Circle K club. “We thought long and hard about a smooth conversion, retaining all past references to Circle K and keeping the Circle fight song,” Baran says. “In essence, Sigma Kappa translates to ‘The Sum of the Equals K.’” “We had a charter on service to others, which we represented on campus and in the neighboring communities,” Baran says. “We were among a small group of students at John Carroll leading the way with service to the community. What founding brothers Bill Kirk; John Heutsche ’68; Don Gehrlein ’68; Frank Schillace ’69; Philip Anderson ’69, ’72G; and all the guys in the late ’60s did implementing and managing off-campus service work was remarkable. This concept was in tune with the changing times of that era and was what attracted me to join.”

We’re proud of the service we provided during our time at Carroll,” Baran says. “Those experiences created a spirit of giving in each one of us that has continued into our adult lives.

Generations of the organization’s members are proud of what they accomplished and are pleased knowing service to the community is a strong element of the culture at Carroll today. “We built a lasting organization with our youthful vision, idealism, and hard work,” Regan says.


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