AUGUSTA — Lisa Newell, the first woman to be elected president of the nearly 1,000-member Le Club Calumet, recognizes her election represents a big change for the Franco-American social group that only began admitting women as members 12 years ago.

While she anticipates she and the new slate of officers elected with her, who take office just after the start of the new year, will bring some fresh ideas to the prominent Augusta club, she wants to keep its focus on celebrating Franco-American heritage.

That’s a large part of what drew her to join the club in the first place.

“It’s kind of surreal, it’s exciting and scary at the same time,” Newell, 51, said of being the first woman to hold the club’s top elected position. “Because it’s going to be different for myself and different for the rest of the membership. It has been 95 years with only men in that leadership position, So I think there will be a learning curve. We have some new officers who are fresh and I think they’ll bring a fresh set of ideas. But I know the importance of keeping the heritage. We don’t want to lose that.”

Now, the club has about 950 members, about 320 of them women. It was founded in 1922, in the basement of a Water Street storefront, by 24 men. The club moved to its current site — building at 334 West River Road that has a 7,200-square-foot hall and 1,000-square-foot conference room — in 1953.

After joining the club, Newell was appointed, by her uncle, to be the club’s literacy chairwoman, overseeing anything involving Franco heritage education. She said she liked being part of leadership meetings, liked having a voice in making changes, and being responsible for planning events. She ran, and was elected to, sergeant at arms, then second vice president, then first vice president and, in November, president.

A desire to reconnect with her family’s Franco-American heritage is largely what drove Newell to join the club in 2005 — shortly after the then all-male membership voted to allow women to join. Her late father, David White, was a club member and her uncle, Donald White Sr., is a three-time club past president.

Newell grew up on Monroe Street in the predominantly Franco neighborhood of Sand Hill, and spoke only French until she reached kindergarten. She said many younger members of the club today can’t speak French at all. She said they’re considering having sessions, for younger, non-French-speaking members, to teach them how to speak some French.

Newell said she felt welcome at the club immediately after she first joined after women were allowed in, and Le Club Calumet, then and now, was and is like family to her.

She and other club members said a few of the “old-timers” at the club may still wish for the days it was men-only, but most recognize the contributions women have already made to the club and their leadership potential.

“I think it’s a great thing, and has been a long time coming,” said Richard “Blackie” Bechard, a roughly 55-year club member who served as president twice and started the club’s popular Festival de la Bastille. “You’ve got a lot of smart women out there and they’ve got a lot to offer. You know, it’s a hard pill for some of the old-timers to accept, but I, personally, feel it’s a big asset.”

Norman Veilleux, a member for some 55 years who served as club secretary for 20-straight years, said electing Newell was a wise choice by members. He said she is very knowledgeable, professional and already does a lot for the club.

“We’re looking forward to having her take over,” Veilleux said. “She’ll do a good job.”

Veilleux said Newell already showed she has some new ideas, including starting a food truck festival this year which they expected would draw about 200 people, but ended up attracting about 800.

Larry Guimond and Rachel Boucher Ellis lead the Le Club Calumet anthem during the opening night of Le Festival de La Bastille on July 8, 2016, in Augusta. Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

Roland Maheux, who first joined the club in 1971, is happy the club has a woman as president and said the decision to allow women entry in 2005 was one of the best decisions the club has made.

“I’m happy we changed our thinking, that was one of the most positive things we’ve done to keep the club as an active entity,” he said. “Twelve years later, we’re seeing the benefit of that decision. Without the women, I don’t know where we’d be today. It was a big boost in membership, and those women are willing to work and willing to be active. I’m not that active anymore. I see the excitement these women have and it, to me, has been great.”

Maheux said he sensed, two or three years ago, that Newell was going to be the club’s first female president. He said she has his support and he thinks she’ll have the support of the whole club.

Newell, who works as logistics officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ regional Veterans Integrated Serviced Network, at Togus, anticipates there may be some club members whose minds won’t be changed about wanting the club to be men-only. But she’s already received many messages of support from members.

“I don’t think I’ll be looked at as one of the good old boys,” said Newell, whose one son, Timothy, is being installed as a new club member Monday. “But I think that it will be a positive experience, for both” her and other club members.

Newell said in the early 2000s, before the club began allowing women to join, she “couldn’t believe people still think that way.”

But she said most men at the club seemed to appreciate what women brought to it, once they were able to join.

“Since the time I’ve joined, the women have done an exceptional job putting on events and doing things at the club,” she said. “I think that has been looked at favorably by the men.”

Augusta Mayor David Rollins, a club member, said the club electing its first female president is something to celebrate and “is a great day for the club, that they recognize women can progress through the system to the point of leadership.”

“I think it’s historic,” one-year member Tina Morang, catering manager for the club, said of Newell’s election. “I think it’s going to change a lot of points of view. I’m excited for it. Women are such an integral part of the day to day running of the club. This is an exciting time for us. I think it’s going to open the door to women who want to be more involved.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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