History, Democracy and Progress of the National Birmingham Roller Club
By: Touhoua (Tou) Yang
The purpose of this article is to address the history of the NBRC and the progress of its growth in the democratic process. There are some within the roller fancy that believe the NBRC is less democratic today than it was 10, 20, and even 30 years ago; that the NBRC is nothing more than a “good ole boys club” and that it is in dire need of change. I do agree that the NBRC can continue to improve and to better serve its members, which I believe is a never-ending process. With that said, we must also appreciate and applaud the continuing efforts of the NBRC to become a more democratic club; one that has continually grown and allowed its member more voice and power than ever before.
The NBRC was created as a vision by a group of friends who wanted a Birmingham Roller club that was dedicated to preserving and improving upon the Birmingham Roller as a flying breed, and a club that would not limit what type of roller or pigeon a man could keep in his own backyard. Men like J.L. Smith, Bill Pensom, and C.E. “Bus” Lutes took the helm when the NBRC was formed in 1961 along with friends such as Ralph Hilton, Russ Harter, Howard McCully, Stan Plona, John Spuria, Hans Roettenbacher who served as the board of directors for the club. Like any hobby and/or club in its fancy, it was made up of friends who chose one another to lead without a true voting process. Much like history has shown, democracy almost always starts with a small movement, where a select group of men choose to rise up and create something they are passionate about. They were just men who, at the time, believed in one another, and believed that together they had what it took to take this new club to heights unseen in the roller hobby in order to preserve and promote the performance aspects of the Birmingham Roller. The process of democracy was non-existent in the NBRC at this time because these men, necessarily, held all the power and made the decisions as to what was best for the organization. Checks and balances did not exist and members did not have a say in the terms of direction of the club, leadership of the club, nor the creation of by-laws.
The new club prospered under this format until the death of Bill Pensom in 1968. Shortly after, in the early 1970s, the NBRC was met with turmoil as the secretary-treasurer at the time, left the club taking along with him all its funds. This left the president, Dr. Gail Peterson, in a severe financial bind that resulted in a slow decline of the NBRC until it had all but folded. In the wake of the NBRC’s decline and imminent demise, there was another club that had been rising up to assume the helm as the largest roller club in the US and in the world; the IRA. The IRA held strong throughout the most of the 1970s and early 1980s in the absence of the NBRC. (Hardesty 1998)
It was not until the early 1980s that we saw the NBRC slowly rise from the ashes. Again, the vision to rebuild this club fell on the backs of a few men; Charlie Albaugh, George Valiska, and Carl Hardesty in particular. Albaugh wanted to see the NBRC be a prominent club again, and with $900 of his own money, fronted the NBRC back into action, money for which he never asked to be compensated, nor did he ever receive.(Hardesty 1998) The money was given to Valiska to get the club up and running again. Valiska would serve as the Secretary-Treasurer, as well as the bulletin editor, during his time with the NBRC. Being a school teacher, he was able to use his resources to print all of the bulletins at the school where he worked. Valiska called and talked with Hardesty and together, they worked hand-in-hand throughout the early to late 1980s to build a membership that grew from 36 to over 1000 members. One of the key reasons for this growth was Hardesty’s position as the publicity director for the NBRC, which he used to promote the club in his writings for the American Pigeon Journal, the APJ, in the 1980s (Hardesty 1998).
Hardesty led the charge of re-writing many of the NBRC by-laws single-handedly. Much like the NBRC during the 1960s, democracy was neither a viable option, nor was it seriously considered as Hardesty believed he knew what he needed to do in order to get the club up and running. Hardesty would prove that he was more than capable of running the show with Valiska. One of the key changes he made was his commitment that the NBRC would be a “fly only” club. Hardesty also made changes to the by-laws regarding the leadership of the club. One of those key changes was that the President would not be elected. Instead, the Board of Directors (Regional Directors) would “vote” for the Vice-President knowing that the Vice-President would eventually serve as President of the club (Hardesty 1998). The word “vote” was put in quotation marks because a true voting process was still absent in the NBRC as those at the helm, Hardesty and Valiska, still made most of the decisions themselves. A voting committee to oversee the ballots and votes did not exist then, as it does today.
Speaking of voting and committees, it must be noted that during the 1987 convention in Louisville, which was where the NBRC held their conventions annually until 1989-1990, Hardesty also made a ground-breaking decision that changed the club for the better. That year, Hardesty created the Hall of Fame award, which he felt was sorely needed. Hardesty noticed that throughout the pigeon hobby, regardless of breed, awards were given to recognize the top flyers and top breeders. Yet an award for those who made the dedication and sacrifices necessary to keep the hobby and clubs alive did not exist (Hardesty 1998). Hardesty, on his own accord, decided to create the Hall of Fame Award, which he then awarded to George Valiska for his tireless contributions in getting the NBRC up and running again, along with Roger Baker, one of the premier rollerman of the Midwest at the time. The award was a large silver platter presented in front of those who attended the convention and it was a surprise to most in attendance. Although a voting body did not exist, Hardesty should be commended for his foresight to create an award for those members who tirelessly give of their time and resources to keep this great hobby alive.
The 1990s proved to be a decade of immense growth, especially in the realm of flying competition. But it was also a decade of turmoil which led to the most progress the NBRC had seen to date. The 1990s showcased the many reasons the club direly needed the democratic process. During its short history in the US, the NBRC had been a national, non-profit club run by a few men who did not have to answer to anyone. A key example of this was during Jim Schneider’s term as president of the NBRC.
Jim Schneider was appointed, voted, and approved as Vice President of the club in 1987 and he served in that capacity until 1990. In 1990, he became president per NBRC by-laws at the time, which stated that the Vice President would automatically become the next President. Hardesty went on to serve as the Director-at-Large while Valiska continued to serve as the Secretary-Treasurer and Bulletin editor.
Less than one year into Schneider’s term as president, he realized that while he was president of the club, he had virtually no power; Valiska held the money so he was the man who still made the majority of the decisions. Schneider was in the process of continuing a previous project started by former President, Carl Hardesty, designed to create a hard-cover collection of articles from NBRC Bulletins of the past. But everything had to go through Valiska and without Valiska’s approval, even with the Board of Directors’ approval, it was not passed. Realizing that he was nothing more than a figure head, as well as the fact that the NBRC’s finances were not transparent; nor was Valiska willing to share detailed reports of the club’s finances, Schneider resigned as President of the NBRC in 1991. These events demonstrated to Schneider, and those in the know at the time, that the NBRC was still lagging far behind in terms of the democratic process and balance within the NBRC as an organization.
Upon Schneider’s resignation, Vice President Tony Dasaro became President of the NBRC and the Director-At-Large, Carl Hardesty, decided it was time to appoint a new Vice-President. This would have been a great time to have the Board of Directors, or even the membership, select a Vice President of the club, but it did not happen. Carl Hardesty had two men in mind to serve as Vice President; Joe Marlett of Indiana and Jerry Higgins of California. Hardesty believed that a presence like Higgins’ would help the club, especially since Higgins was from the West Coast. Therefore Hardesty appointed Jerry Higgins to be the Vice-President of the NBRC at the tail end of 1991 (Hardesty 1998). This proved to be another great decision by Hardesty, as it gave balance to the club; President Dasaro was from the Eastern part of the US and Vice President Higgins was from California.
As mentioned before, the 1990s was not only a decade of success but a decade of turmoil, too. Shortly after the Schneider/Valiska debacle, the NBRC would see another dispute between the President of the club and the Secretary-Treasurer of the club. This time the two men were James Turner and James Perri.
James Turner was appointed, voted, and approved to serve as Vice President under Jerry Higgins, who had become the President of the club after President Dasaro’s term ended. After Higgins’ term as President expired, it was Turner’s turn to serve as the club president. In Turner’s first address to the membership, he talked about bringing harmony and unity to the club as well as “making sure the membership’s voices are heard” (Marlett 1996). Little did Turner know, that commitment would be the cause for another debacle between the President and the Secretary-Treasurer of the NBRC.
Jim Perri had taken over the position of Secretary-Treasurer and Bulletin editor after Valiska decided he had given back enough to the club and it was time for him to move on. Perri served as the Secretary-Treasurer while his wife, Kathleen Perri, served as the Bulletin editor. One of the first things that Turner did as President was to ask the Perri’s for a detailed account of the club treasury. As Turner stated, he was the President of a non-profit organization with a membership of over 1,600 members and he wanted everyone to know what the finances of the club were; where the funds came from, where they went, and how they were used. Like the Secretary-Treasurers before him, Perri would not give up that information; however Turner would not sit idly by. Unlike Schneider, though, and due to the change in the structure of the club and membership, Turner chose to meet the issue head on and confronted Perri. With that, Perri did the only thing he could do in order to retain his power; he informed the President of the NBRC that he was being relieved of his services.
So in 1996, less than seven months into his term, Turner received a letter signed by Perri stating, and I quote,:
This letter is to inform you that your services as President
of the National Birmingham Roller Club will not be required after July 15th,
1996. If you have any questions, please
contact myself, Jerry Higgins (Director-At-Large), or Art Hopkins
(Vice-President). Thank you for your past services in behalf of the National
Birmingham Roller Club.
James A. Perri
Secretary-Treasurer” (Perri 1996)
This was arguably the lowest point in NBRC history, especially when one considers the lack of democratic processes within the club, as well as its power structure. A lower level officer, the Secretary-Treasurer, had relieved the President of the organization of his position and duties. At the time, the NBRC was arguably one of the few organizations in the world in which an individual who was supposed to report to the Chief Executive Officer assumed the authority to fire the Chief Executive Officer…..and got away with it! It would be akin to the Secretary of Treasury of the United States firing and relieving the President of his duties. This was the unfortunate state of affairs in the politics of the NBRC that existed up to that point in time.
Upon receiving the letter, President Turner decided it was time to correct the problems within the NBRC and truly make the club a more transparent, democratic organization. His goal was to include the membership in the decision-making process, as he had set out to do less than a year ago in his first address to the membership. So Turner stood up for himself and took action. He made copies of the letter that he had received from Perri and sent those copies to all the Regional Directors, as well as numerous prominent club members at his own expense. Turner knew that once the Regional Directors and the general membership knew what was going on, he would gain their support…….and, that, he did. Many members sent a copy of the letter Turner sent to them to the NBRC bulletin-editor for publication so that all of the members could see what was happening. But Mrs. Perri refused to print these letters in support of her husband. However the members did not stop there; many also sent copies of the letter from Perri to Turner to the PFRC, as well as Dave Gehrke’s Roller Journal, where it was ultimately printed for all to see.
As a result, many NBRC members began to see the NBRC for what it really was at the time; a club that was operated by one man and his friends. Numerous members in 1996 supported President Turner. As a result of their allegiance to the President, they were taken off the NBRC’s mailing list and stopped receiving their Bulletins. Regional Directors who supported Turner were also relieved of their positions and their names were removed from the listing in the NBRC Bulletin as Regional Directors. The Secretary-Treasurer then selected and appointed his own Regional Directors to replace those he had “fired” (Gehrke 1996). All one has to do is take a look at the May-June 1996 NBRC Bulletin through the November-December 1996 Bulletins to see the change that occurred in the Regional Directors to confirm all that was all done at the discretion of the Secretary-Treasurer; obviously without the approval of the President or Vice President. Even Hall of Fame members and Lifetime Members were removed from the club during this period and did not receive their bulletins! (Marlett 1996). Still, President Turner had the backing of the membership but before the issue could be resolved, Perri passed away due to a heart attack
Turner continued his work as President but soon realized that, upon Perri’s death, the funds in the NBRC treasury had disappeared once again. Kathleen Perri chose to have nothing more to do with the NBRC and resigned as the Bulletin Editor. As a result, the NBRC had to scramble to find someone to print the bulletins. The NBRC turned to Guil Rand and Dave Gehrke for help. Gehrke, who printed his own publication, stepped up and printed two editions of the NBRC Bulletin before Bob Simpson and Bob Berggren were appointed to fill the vacancies left by the Perri’s. During his last year as President, Turner worked hard to bring the members back together; to change NBRC By-laws in order to create a more democratic process and to give the NBRC membership a voice in its affairs (Marlett 1998). Turner’s first major change in the By-laws was to allow the membership to vote for their own Regional Directors instead of having them appointed (Marlett 1998). This By-law was passed and has been in effect ever since.
Turner also believed that changes were needed in terms of the process of the removal of a club officer and what the protocols should be. He did not want anything similar to what happened to him to happen again, nor to any other NBRC officer in the future. Recognzing that the same thing had happened to Jim Schneider before himself, Turner took steps as President to prevent any single individual from having the power to “remove” any other officer from the club (Marlett 1998). The Treasury report was also of chief concern to Turner, so he worked to change the By-laws to make sure the ensuing treasurers would be required to publish detailed reports of the club’s treasury for the membership to review.
Turner’s last change to the By-laws, in the hope of creating a more democratic club, was to amend the By-laws to allow the general membership to vote for all the offices of the club, including the office of President. The only office to be assumed automatically would be the Director-at-Large, which would help with the transition of the newly-elected office of President (Marlett 1998). To this day, this is still the case.
As a result of the changes made by Turner, in 1999, Joe Marlett would be in charge of the first actual NBRC election where the membership was allowed and able to vote for the offices of President and Vice-President. Harold Ryan of Iowa served as the ballot-counter and when all was said and done, Don Ouellette of California and Rick Mee of Louisiana were elected as President and Vice-President of the NBRC respectively; Ouellette and Mee go down in NBRC history as the first men elected by the membership as President and Vice-President.
Regarding changes made to the By-laws in order to create a more democratic process, the 1990s also saw a change in the Hall of Fame voting process. During the early 1990s, the By-laws were changed and the Hall of Fame inductees were now to be voted on by the existing members of the Hall of Fame instead of chosen arbitrarily by Valiska and Hardesty as they had done the previous years. It was also during this time that the By-laws were changed so that the role of the Vice President would now include tallying up the votes for Hall of Fame candidates. Karma has its way of working, even within pigeon politics. It was Turner who fought for the democratic change within the NBRC and two years after his presidency ended, he was elected by his peers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 while JV Broek served as the Vice-President and official Hall of Fame ballot collector and counter.
With regard to the Hall of Fame award, Joe Marlett continued the vision of Carl Hardesty, except that he put everything in writing for the general membership to see. As Marlett and Hardesty before him both emphasized, our hobby is built on the backbone of volunteers who pour their heart and soul into this hobby; thus, they should be recognized. The Hall of Fame award was not meant to be an award to represent the best fliers, for there was already an award for that; the championship trophy/plaque, as well as the Master Flyer Award, which was instituted in the late 90s (Marlett 1998, 2). A great flier who wins a competition is always recognized by the organization/club he flew under, as well as being recognized by his fellow competitors. Hardesty and Marlett knew that the roller hobby’s life source was more than just that; it was the men who helped organize the competitions, the judges, the volunteers, the regional directors, the writers of articles, etc. who kept the clubs and competitions together. They should be the ones honored with the Hall of Fame award. The Hall of Fame award was, and still is, an award designed to honor a fancier’s overall contributions to the hobby; flying is just one aspect of it. Marlett started looking over the By-laws of the Hall of Fame process and noticed it was sorely lacking, especially when it came to “qualifications” for potential candidates. It was during 1997-1998, after talks with President Turner, that Marlett began to work on a guideline which was to be sent out to the general membership explaining what the Hall of Fame Award was all about, and who would be a viable candidate for the Hall of Fame. After a few drafts, it was approved by the Regional Directors and published in the July-Aug 1998 Bulletin. It is still used as the standard against which all potential candidates are measured. It was also during this time, the early to mid 1990s, that the Hall of Fame nomination was open to all the general members in good standing with the NBRC. Prior to that, officers were usually the ones who nominated potential Hall of Fame candidates.
The 2000s saw the NBRC enjoy a period of prosperity and peace, and we have continued to see the democratic process at work. It must be noted that much of the stability within the organization from 1997 until the present day was due largely to the tireless work and dedication of Secretary-Treasurer Bob Berggren and the Bulletin Editor, Bob Simpson, as they were the only consistent pieces of the club during that 15 year period. Although we did have a few hiccups along the way in 2006-2007, the club has continued to prosper; improving by way of democracy, and allowing its members’ voices to be heard more and more. The 2000s also proved to be a turning point, as we had our first minority President elected into office, Juan Navarro.
By simply reading the past few pages, the reader will have learned, or remembered, that from 1961 until roughly 1996, the NBRC was really run by a select few individuals. The Secretary-Treasurer held the power, along with his friends. In fact, the largest debacles and the most significant crises the club has endured over the years almost always came exclusively from the consolidation of power in the hands of the Secretary-Treasurer and the power he wielded. As a direct result, the NBRC came close to folding in the 1970s because the Secretary-Treasurer resigned keeping the organization’s Treasury funds for his personal use, and leaving very little behind for Albaugh and Peterson. In 1991, we saw the incident between President Jim Schneider and Secretary-Treasurer George Valiska where Valiska left Schneider with no option but to resign. And later in 1996, there was the issue between President James Turner and Secretary-Treasurer Jim Perri. Each time a Secretary-Treasurer quit or resigned, the club found itself without funds. After Valiska left the post in the early 90s, the club was in dire straits, and after Perri passed away in 1996, the club was again left in dire straits. It was not until after 1996, when Bob Berggren took over as Secretary-Treasurer, that we, as members, finally saw detailed treasury accounts. From the 1970s until current day, only the transfer of the office of Secretary-Treasurer between Bob Berggren and Jay Alnimer in 2012 did not result in the loss of the NBRC’s treasury funds.
Today’s NBRC functions with more democracy and more transparency than ever before in its history. All issues that are presented before the Executive Committe are discussed openly on an internet Executive Committee forum which was started by Dave Szabatura. Each discussion period is followed by EC voting that requires a YES vote from a majority of the voters in order for any proposal to pass. The discussion is monitored and the subsequent vote is tabulated by an Executive Committee moderator, and the result is reported in the next issue of the NBRC Bulletin so that members can see who voted and how they voted on every issue. NBRC members who are concerned about issues that are before the Executive Committee may elect to join the NBRC Forum started by former NBRC President, Jay Yandle. All issues presented before the NBRC EC for discussion are posted on the Forum. Members can then express their opinions on the issues and/or contact their Regional Directors to provide input on the issues before the vote is called. EC members can also view and monitor this input from the members on the Forum before casting their vote.
As I mentioned in the opening sentences, there are those select few who still believe the NBRC is being run today like it was in the 60s-90s. But these merely represent a few individuals who are simply living in the past, because that is definitely not the situation any longer. The Secretary-Treasurer is now held accountable for club funds and the Treasury report must be included in every bulletin. All of the offices are now open to the general membership and ANYONE can nominate and vote for the organization’s officers. Anyone can nominate and vote for their local Regional Directors. Anyone can nominate a candidate of their choice for the NBRC Hall of Fame. The Secretary-Treasurer and Bulletin Editor can no longer arbitrarily throw anyone out of the club, nor withhold a member’s Bulletin simply because of personal vendettas. Officers no longer collect nor count ballots for any of the elected offices. Unlike yesteryear, there is a voting committee selected every two years to oversee the collection and counting of the ballots. No single person holds all the power. All the things stated above, before the mid 1990s, were non-existent and not available to the general membership. This story represents just one aspect of the colorful history of the NBRC, in an attempt to inform all its members about the progress the NBRC has made, and has continued to make, in terms of the overall democratic changes that have occurred, and the shift in the balance of power within the NBRC as an organization.
In the end, I hope this article has opened a few eyes, as well as refreshed a few memories. We must learn and remember history so we are not doomed to repeat it. I do hope that this article does not come across too negatively, because that was not the intent. It was not intended to malign any individual. It is merely a piece of our club’s history that I felt must be shared in order to keep us informed and to remind us all to be thankful for what we have; to see how much our club has grown; to appreciate the progress the club has made and to continue to strive for excellence, as was the vision of men like Pensom, Lutes, Smith, Hardesty, Valiska, Albaugh, Schneider, Higgins, Turner, Gehrke, Rand, Ouellette, Marlett, Simpson, Berggren and other great men like them, who have dedicated their resources, their time and their efforts to improve our club, and to allow each and everyone one of us to be a part of it today. Some of you may be thinking, “My goodness, some of those men listed above were so flawed!” since they did not do everything by the book nor did they follow the democratic process. But to that I say, “Are we not all flawed?”
I would like to say thank you to all those that contributed to this effort: James Turner, Wally Fort, Jim Schneider, Tony Dasaro, Carl Hardesty, Ellis McDonald, Joe Marlett, Cliff Ball and many other men for taking the time to talk with me and allowing me to use them as a resource for this article. I would also like to thank Bob Simpson for his tireless and continuing commitment to our great club over the past 17 years, and for providing the opportunity for this article to be printed in the NBRC Bulletin. Lastly, thank you to Cliff Ball and Jay Alnimer for their continued service and contributions to the NBRC as Vice President and Secretary-Treasurer, and to President Don Macauley for his past two years of service as President, and also for stepping up to fill the void as the National Fly Director. The NBRC over the years IS democracy, growth, and progress at its best. So remember, before we think of speaking negatively; of demeaning, or knocking the club, we must carefully choose our words. We should look back at its history, and recognize the growth that we have seen, as well as to appreciate the steps others have taken to create a more democratic organization for us all. To paraphrase what a great American once said, “My fellow ROLLERMEN, ask not what your CLUB can do you, but what YOU can do for your club!”
Written Sources Used:
1. Marlett, Joe. “NBRC Needs Radical Reform” Roller Journal October (1996): 10-11.
2. Gehrke, Dave. “Club Controversy.” Roller Journal October (1996): 6-8.
3. Perri, James A. “President of the National Birmingham Roller Club.” Letter to James Turner. 6 July 1996.
4. Marlett, Joe. “Thank You Mr. President.” National Birmingham Roller Club Jan-Feb (1998)
5. Marlett, Joe. “The NBRC Hall of Fame.” National
Birmingham Roller Club July-Aug (1998)
6. Hardesty, Carl W. “The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the NBRC.” National Birmingham Roller Club Bulletin (1998) o