With his snowy white mane, chiseled features and attention-grabbing goatee, it’s easy to see why George Penniston is called a Lion Tamer.
But the larger-than-life, 93-year-old member of the Independence branch of the Lions Club grins and chuckles when asked if he has ever been in the center ring at a circus.
“Oh my goodness, no,” said Penniston, who has a string of 65 years of perfect attendance at Lions Club meetings in Independence and across the state.
“If you happen to be out of town, or miss a local meeting, you can catch up just about anywhere in the country. And I’ve done that a few times, but most of my meetings are right here in Independence.”
The Independence Host Lions Club came into existence on Nov. 14, 1939, when 12 prospective members met at the historic Log Courthouse in Independence for an organizational meeting conducted by Orlando Hickey, a representative of Lions Club International.
Penniston was center stage at the recent Lions Club Pancake Day on the Square, where Lions Club members served pancakes from dusk to dawn to raise money for their many philanthropic pursuits.
“George is getting up there in years,” said Lions Club first vice president Jerry Dinsmore, “but he’s at everything. And he doesn’t just attend our events, he helps out with everything.
“And he really is our Lion Tamer – but it has nothing to do with big cats. He is in charge of the gear we bring to our club meetings – banners, our gavel, all that equipment – George is in charge of all of that.
“And he has one of the largest collections of Lions Club clippings, letters, photos and pins and memorabilia in the country.”
When he wasn’t flipping pancakes or taking care of other duties in the kitchen, Penniston was showing off table, after table, after table of Lions Club memorabilia that included a letter from President Harry Truman.
“I have all sorts of stuff,” said Penniston, who painstakingly picks out some of his personal highlight items, including many photos of past and present members.
For more than six decades, Independence’s own Lion Tamer has collected Lions Club state pins – ranging from Kentucky long rifles to Tennessee’s Elvis Presley.
“I probably have $20,000 in pins,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with them all, but they’re sure fun to look at and trade with Lions Club members from other states.”
While he talks with great passion about the Lion’s Club, nothing touches his soul like the work the club does to help anyone affected by poor eyesight.
Lions Clubs International has supported eye-care programs since 1925, when Helen Keller addressed the Lions International convention and challenged them to become “knights of the blind.”
Cornea transplants and providing eyeglasses to those in need are two major emphases of the organization. The Lions Club collects 50 million pairs of eyeglasses every year for recycling. The local club will collect 7,000 to 8,000 pairs of eyeglasses for redistribution at some 20 drop-off locations in the area.
“We help kids, we help adults, we collect used glasses to help people – we have events like our Pancake Day – to raise money and awareness,” Penniston said. “It’s just a great organization, but our numbers are dwindling, and a lot of our members are older, like me.”
“I hope young people will read this and want to get involved.”
Penniston also knows what it’s like to oversee teeenagers as he worked with 25 paper carriers for The Examiner back in the 1950s.
“I got out of the Marines and went to work for The Examiner,” he said. “I was a circulation manager for a while, then, I just worked with 25 carriers and I was so proud of them. They made sure that paper was delivered every day. I always had a strong work ethic and wanted them to have a strong work ethic, too.”