On a hot Sunday in July 1962, Marcia Reagan and her family stood in a long line outside David Crocket High School in Conroe. When they reached the front of the line, Marcia, her parents, her brother, and her sister were each given a sugar cube with two pink dots—a dose of the oral polio vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. The Sabin vaccine was big news because, in addition to guarding against infection, it protected people from becoming carriers. Marcia, then 12 years old, had no qualms about accepting the pink-dotted sugar cube. She had been horrified when she’d seen photos of child polio victims who were placed in “iron lungs” to help them breathe. “That was a scary thing,” she says, noting that in preceding years, the polio infection rate in Texas had been among the highest in the nation. Children were most vulnerable to the dreaded disease, which killed some and inflicted others with varying degrees of permanent paralysis.
Marcia, a retired public-school librarian, now serves as the historian and recording secretary of the Conroe Service League (CSL). She reports that in 1962, CSL was one of several local organizations that joined forces to help the Montgomery County Medical Association’s “Victory over Polio” campaign, a grassroots vaccination effort that included several events throughout the county. CSL, which had been organized six years before, was blossoming, and its 40 members worked tirelessly during the week leading up to the first mass vaccination event. Volunteers provided logistical support and manned phones for long hours.
“Victory over Polio” was called a “big success,” with about 75 percent of the county’s population getting vaccinated for three strains of polio at three separate mass events at high schools across the county. A Conroe Courier reporter opined that without CSL, the campaign would have likely been a “flop.” He praised the women for working “day and night” to make sure all residents of the sprawling county would have the same opportunity to take the vaccine.
After teaching middle school for 32 years, Kary Thigpen worried about what she’d do to have purpose during retirement. A few years later, she discovered CSL. “It was the perfect organization to meet and serve other people and form a bond with other women,” says Kary, who is now CSL’s president. Throughout the past six and a half decades, many other women have discovered the same thing. This month, the Conroe Service League, one of the first female-founded organizations in the county, will celebrate 65 years of continual service.
In 1955, Marcia reports, 12 young Conroe women began discussing the need for a service organization and sought the advice of the Junior League of Lufkin. The Conroe Service League was chartered the following year. In the early years, one of the league’s main projects was to identify needy families in the community and to provide them with gift baskets and toys at Christmastime. The women also introduced children to the fine arts through annual trips to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and by making performances of plays, operas, and symphonies available locally. The league’s mission was to “provide organized service opportunities for the women serving in Montgomery County in the areas of education, cultural arts, health and welfare, and to effectively use the work of the league for the betterment of the community.”
Although CSL’s first members were young women, Marcia says, the organization evolved over the years as its members grew older. Today’s league has 48 active members ranging “from 30 to 80,” Kary says. “There is no typical member.” CSL’s diverse membership includes stay-at-home moms, career women, and retirees. Kary likes the fact members can choose to work on the organization’s programs that best suit their interests and abilities. One of her own favorites is the Community Outreach program. The endeavor has unfortunately been affected by the pandemic, but in past years, CSL volunteered extensively with Montgomery County Youth Services’ BridgeWay Emergency Youth Shelter, which houses young people who are abused, neglected, or in peril. CSL members worked with the residents once a month, providing life skills training, cultural activities, holiday parties, and other enriching events. Kary is hopeful that CSL volunteers can once again become actively involved with BridgeWay when the pandemic is over.
Another of the league’s programs provides hearing and vision screening to children who attend area daycare centers. In 2012, CSL teamed up with the Lion’s Club, says Marcia, who serves on CSL’s audio/visual committee. Today, the Lion’s Club provides the vision screenings at daycare centers, while CSL screens the preschoolers for hearing loss. The Conroe Service League also provides “baby bundles”—containing diapers, clothing and a variety of baby care items—to new mothers who might be struggling. “We send them home with essentials so they will have them when they leave the hospital,” Kary says. In addition, CSL provides donations and volunteers to help teenage girls find free prom dresses at an annual, fun event. Meanwhile, CSL has provided more than $200,000 in college scholarships to high school seniors since it began its scholarship program in 1961.
CSL also provides financial support to more than a dozen local organizations, including Family Promise, Journey Home and the Heritage Museum. In fact, the league spearheaded the organizational effort that resulted in the opening of the Heritage Museum, Montgomery County’s own historical museum, in 1985.
In 1957, CSL opened the Bargain Box, a resale shop stocked with donated items to be sold to generate money for the organization’s philanthropic programs. It has been operated by members of the Conroe Service League ever since. “We take all donations,” Kary says, but notes that only the best items are displayed in the shop. (Less saleable items are re-donated to other worthy organizations.) Not only does the Bargain Box generate money, but it also provides thrifty shoppers with bargains. “We mark the items so people can afford to buy them,” Kary says. Although the league’s annual Designer Purse Bingo is an enormously popular and successful fundraiser, the Bargain Box remains the league’s primary way of securing needed funds. The Bargain Box is located at 123 North Thompson Street in downtown Conroe. Now painted a vivid blue, it is easy to find. The Bargain Box is open from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesdays through Fridays, and on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. Donations of clothing, accessories and household goods are accepted during operating hours.
The Bargain Box will host a reception and the unveiling of a historical plaque presented by the Montgomery County Historical Society on Thursday, October 14. Tribute will be paid to the original 12 CSL members for their foresight and dedication. Their efforts, and the efforts of those they inspired, have helped the underserved in the community for decades, and have brought many cultural opportunities to generations of local schoolchildren. Families of the original 12 members, as well as representatives from the City of Conroe, the Chamber of Commerce and the Montgomery County Historical Society, plan to be in attendance. On Saturday, October 16, the Bargain Box will celebrate a grand re-opening and 65th anniversary party.
CSL welcomes new members who share the organization’s goals of assisting the underserved and helping to enrich the community. For more information, visit conroeserviceleague.org.