Hugh Collie and Willie Norris have dedicated the majority of their lives to the Johnson City/Washington County Pro-To Club Inc.
As two of 12 founding members, Collie and Norris have witnessed an increase in support for area African Americans in pursuit of a college education.
“There wasn’t anything like this program at the time” of the club’s founding, said Collie, who has served as finance secretary for 20 years and two terms as president. “We didn’t have any clubs giving black kids scholarships. So, we decided to try to start a club where we could help our children with scholarships.”
Norris, who is the club’s treasurer and has also served two terms as president, said building up funding for the scholarships is one of the club’s biggest achievements.
“I’m glad to see that we’ve been able to progress as much moneywise as we have in providing scholarships,” Norris said.
The club’s purpose, Collie said, is to promote community service and learning, which is what he did the most with his involvement.
“We first wanted to serve the community,” Collie said. “But, we learned how to cooperate and communicate. We also learned how to disagree but resolve our differences.”
Collie said teamwork has been important to the club’s success.
“We decided that 12 men could do more than 25 or 30 if everybody is on one accord,” Collie said. “We’ve accomplished a whole lot.”
Collie and Norris will be honored at the club’s annual scholarship award banquet on Saturday.
This is the first time Collie and Norris will be recognized for their more than 60 years of service in the club, said Walter Buford, who is on the club’s Scholarship Committee.
“When they started, it was during the time when segregation was pretty high,” Buford said. “That’s how they got started — it was the need of the black kids to have someone to help them go to college.”
The club was founded in 1952 and the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled segregation in schools illegal, prompted the club to support African American children interested in attending college.
“Of course when the landmark decision was made, it still didn’t change things for years,” Buford said. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities. They were on the road of trying to get equality.”
The club’s first scholarship was awarded in 1957, he said.
The Pro-To Club, or Progress/Together Club, has been able to award financial support to approximately 93 students, said Thelma Norris, Willie’s wife.
Initially, the scholarship generated around $50 for one student. The club has since been able to award two students with a $1,000 scholarship each.
Buford said the club helps promote positive and diverse relationships throughout the community.
“It helped bind the community,” Buford said. “It helped give direction in the community to make progress together. That’s what it’s all about. Progress together in us, through us and around us.”
With Collie’s exceptional people skills, Buford said the club was able to get many other people involved.
“He is consistent and he perseveres,” Buford said. “He has confidence and passion. He works with others really good and that’s a plus.”
Remaining true to personal beliefs regardless of external pressures is what Buford said makes Norris an important piece of the puzzle.
“I think that’s a trait that a lot of people don’t have,” Buford said. “He is methodical and on point and things are always kept in order. He handles his post very well.”
Both founding members said they are appreciative of the banquet being held in their honor, but the event will focus mainly on the students who seek higher education.
“I appreciate them giving me flowers while I live,” Collie said of the honor banquet.
“It really works on your heart,” Norris said about being honored. “I’m thankful I’ve lived to be as old as I am and I’m still active enough that I can still do a few things for the club.”
Working with Collie and Norris, Buford said has been a personal inspiration and honor.
“It’s refreshing,” Buford said. “With a group of men like that in the forefront of change, a lot can be done. Being able to work through those kind of things and still get the job done, that takes special people.”
The Pro-To Club has assisted many local organizations with fundraising efforts, Buford said.
“Among Pro-To’s civic involvements are sponsorship of Little League basketball teams, conducting community blood donor drives, support of United Way, fundraising for the initial Carver Recreation Center and contributions to the Johnson City Boys (and Girls) Club,” according to a club news release.
The annual Pro-To scholarship award banquet will be held at Carver Recreation Center at 6 p.m. Saturday. Scholarship recipients will be announced that night. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 6 years old. Proceeds will benefit the scholarship fund. For more information, call Buford at 753-9806.