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Kiwanis International Chief Champions Children

Times Staff Writer

In the late 1960s, when the United Farm Workers union was spearheading a lettuce boycott aimed at pressuring growers to allow field hands to unionize, Frank DiNoto recalls his daughters’ saying one day that their high school teachers had asked them to support the boycott.

DiNoto was troubled by what he saw as the school’s failure to give the farm owners’ side of the dispute. So he stepped in and arranged for some of the teachers and students to visit Tulare County farms in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley to gain an understanding of the growers’ position.

That visit was part of the “Farm-City Youth Exchange Program,” which DiNoto launched as a community service in 1963 for his local Kiwanis club to introduce urban teen-agers to rural life.

Over the past 32 years, the 61-year-old banker from Newport Beach has sought to get people “to see the other fellow’s side” by involving them in similar community service projects. These projects are largely credited for DiNoto’s election as president of Kiwanis International, a men’s service organization. He began serving his one-year term last month.

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The 8,200 Kiwanis International clubs in 79 nations help sponsor activities that include the Special Olympics for handicapped children, a yearly Children’s Miracle Network Telethon that raised $21 million this year for children’s hospitals, and fund raising for college scholarships, DiNito said.

Last year, Kiwanis clubs altogether donated $51.7 million and volunteered more than 22 million man-hours for community service projects, Kiwanis spokesman David Blackmer said in a telephone interview from the organization’s headquarters in Indianapolis.

“My special emphasis (while Kiwanis International president) this year will be on programs dealing with the health and safety of children,” DiNoto said in a recent interview at his Newport Beach home.

To achieve his presidential goal--"Make Miracles Happen"--DiNoto is trying to get local Kiwanis clubs across the country more involved in child health and safety programs.

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His special interest is in getting Kiwanis in the United States and abroad to work closely with local health officials to establish more emergency trauma centers for children, such as the Kiwanis Trauma Institute in Boston.

“It’s important to establish more pediatric trauma centers throughout the world because the first hour following an accident is the most crucial to successful treatment,” he said. “Children need their own trauma units because the equipment required to treat their injuries is different, and they need specially trained doctors.”

Kiwanians already do extensive volunteer work with ill or injured children. DiNoto recalled that one Southern California Kiwanian was so cheerful while playing Santa Claus during a recent Christmas season that he prompted a young boy to talk for the first time in six weeks at a children’s hospital.

Local clubs also help out by providing trips to Disneyland for terminally ill children. “Your heart really goes out to children like this,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more enriching.”

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DiNoto and his wife, Mary Jane, moved to Orange County six years ago after living 23 years in Arcadia.

He is chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Savings Bank, which he founded 32 years ago with a single office in Rosemead. Today, it has $280 million in assets and five offices in Orange County, with another five branches in Los Angeles County.

However, DiNoto will be spending little time on banking during his year as Kiwanis president. He and his wife will be busy visiting Kiwanis clubs in the United States and abroad, attempting to get them to increase their community service projects.

Mary Jane DiNoto, who has shared in her husband’s Kiwanis activities, asked, in mock horror, “Can you believe we spent our 39th (wedding)anniversary (last Aug. 31) in a girls’ dormitory? We were attending a meeting of the Key Club, (the Kiwanis’ high school auxiliary), in Valley Forge, Pa. . . . Actually, it was a lot of fun.”

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A native of East Los Angeles, DiNoto said he joined Kiwanis because “when I started Universal Savings (Bank in Rosemead)in ’54, part of my objective at the bank was to have the supervisory personnel involved in community service.”

“I joined the Rosemead Kiwanis Club because its community service programs involved projects with a special emphasis on youth,” he continued. This appealed to me, as well as Mary Jane.”

He said his volunteer work hasn’t interfered with family or business commitments. “I substituted TV time,” explained the USC-educated accountant and attorney. “Fellows who say they can’t find time for community service organizations like the Kiwanis are the same ones you’ll find glued to their TVs.”

Besides, he added, “part of the success of any business depends on community support. I think a businessman has a responsibility to give something back to the community by becoming involved in a service club.”

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A Family Affair

Kiwanis has been a family affair for the DiNotos. “Our (three daughters)used to go up to Tulare (on Kiwanis farm visits) with us every fall until they went off to college,” remembers Mary Jane DiNoto, a homemaker.

“I’ve spent almost as much time on Kiwanis activities as Frank, and I think I’ve enjoyed them about as much as he has,” she continued. “The girls (Linda, 34; Debbie, 32, and Karen, 31) were brought up in Kiwanis.”

DiNoto also is a trustee of the California Christian (Retirement)Home in Rosemead and is a past president of the Rosemead Chamber of Commerce.

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Although he lives in Newport Beach, DiNoto continues to attend the weekly lunch meetings of the 35-member Rosemead Kiwanis Club. “I enjoy the fun and fellowship of my home club;they supported me up the ladder.”

In 1963, he started the Farm-City Youth Exchange Program for the Rosemead Kiwanis Club in which 75 junior high school students from Los Angeles County’s urbanized San Gabriel Valley spend two days in rural Tulare County each October.

“About a third of the state’s work force is involved in agriculture and related businesses,” said DiNoto, who served as the program’s chairman during its first 11 years. “I think it’s important students learn about the importance of the agriculture to California’s economy.”

Students over the years have visited mechanized dairy farms, a raisin-processing plant and a University of California agriculture research center. They’ve watched the mechanical harvesting of walnut and cotton crops and seen 75-pound turkeys being raised for restaurants.

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The other half of the Farm-City program brings Tulare County students to the San Gabriel Valley to tour printing plants, supermarket warehouses, harbors and airports, auto plants, water-treatment facilities, even shoe-manufacturing plants.

“This helps young people from Tulare County understand commerce and industry,” DiNoto said.

In 1971, DiNoto launched another innovative Kiwanis project, “Youth and the Issues,” a nationally syndicated television program. During the show, which is seen locally on KHJ (Channel 9), college students interview public figures on contemporary issues.

“We hope the show creates better understanding between young people and government officials or business leaders,” DiNoto said.

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Such community activities led DiNoto to expand his involvement in Kiwanis from his home club in Rosemead to participation in Kiwanis activities at the state and national level. But he believes that the true strength of Kiwanis remains in its local clubs. These clubs draw their members from men involved in business and other professions.

Auxiliary Groups

All but 50,000 of the 310,000 Kiwanians belong to clubs in the United States. They also have such auxiliary organizations as the 10,000-member Circle K Club for college students, the 110,000-member Key Club for high school students and 7,000-member Builders Club for junior high students. Their purpose, DiNoto said, is to provide leadership training by involving youths in community service.

But the Kiwanis clubs themselves have experienced only a “slight membership increase” in recent years, DiNoto said, adding that they are taking steps to combat the problem of potential stagnation as the median age of their members grows increasingly older. The average age of their members is 55.

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To increase membership, the Kiwanis about a dozen years ago began establishing “Golden K Clubs” composed entirely of men age 60 or older, who are usually retirees.

“Some changes are needed to attract younger people to service organizations,” said DiNoto in noting that graying membership rolls are faced not only by Kiwanis but also by Rotarians, Lions and other men’s service clubs.

“However, I have complete confidence that we’ll succeed in getting younger members because we’re involved in heartwarming projects like the Special Olympics for handicaped children.

“When young people learn that by belonging to the Kiwanis they can provide services that are needed by the community--and which the government cannot, or should not, provide--then they will take the time to join the Kiwanis or other service clubs,” DiNoto maintained.

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DiNoto said a study is under way to determine concrete steps the Kiwanis can take to attract younger members. At the same time, the organization continues to oppose women as members.

DiNoto wouldn’t say whether he favored the admission of women to the all-male Kiwanis, a controversial subject for members and would-be female members alike.

At its convention in Houston last June, Kiwanis International voted against admitting women to the 71-year-old organization. Admission of women has been unsuccessfully proposed at nearly every Kiwanis convention in the past decade, spokesman Blackmer said.

This year’s Kiwanis vote excluding women from membership came despite legal challenges to the practice and a unanimous vote by its board of trustees recommending that convention delegates accept women members in order to avoid a long and costly legal battle to maintain the organization’s status as an all-male organization.

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“As president, I’ll carry out the wishes of the membership,” DiNoto said. “The Kiwanis will remain strong either way--whether it remains all-male or has a mixed membership of men and women. As long as there are people who’re sold on the idea that community service is needed, the Kiwanis will thrive.”


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