Lions International elects future leader from rural southern Minnesota
BIRD ISLAND, Minn. — Harry Truman held the highest office in the land, yet was always proud to boast that the small town of Independence, Missouri, was his home.
And so it is for Brian Sheehan, who will soon be leading Lions International, with 1.47 million members in over 47,000 clubs in more than 200 countries.
Bird Island is home for Sheehan, and he is more than happy to tell others about it.
"We just love this community. I talk about it globally," said Sheehan of the town of about 1,000 people.
The Lions elected him their international third vice president at the international convention earlier this month in Las Vegas. It puts the 60-year-old Sheehan on track to lead the organization as its president in 2021, which will be exactly 100 years after the last Minnesotan held the office.
It's no exaggeration when Sheehan says he speaks globally about his hometown in Renville County. He's just 100,000 miles shy of 1 million miles of air travel as part of his globetrotting duties with Lions.
All of this travel, really, because of Bird Island. He joined the Bird Island Lions Club in 1991. He said he was inspired by his father, Fabian, who was among its charter members in 1964.
Fabian Sheehan started Sheehan Gas and delivered propane fuel to area farms. Brian and his siblings developed computer programming that helped his father calculate when to deliver propane to his customers based on heating degree days and their usage patterns.
It was the start of Rural Computer Consultants, the company that Sheehan and some of his siblings lead today.
As CEO, Sheehan spends many of his working hours telecommuting while flying around the world. His focus on technology is one of his goals for Lions—he's working on using technology to better connect Lions and help them recruit young members.
Ever since Robert Putnam authored "Bowling Alone'' in 2000, it's been no secret that membership by young people in community organizations has been waning in the country. But Sheehan said he steps into a Lions organization that is seeing some success in bucking this trend: Membership in the Lions is growing, with more members today than ever before.
"The younger generation wants to volunteer as much as anybody else,'' Sheehan said. "They don't want to sit in meetings. They want to get on the ground.''
Getting boots on the ground and performing community service is exactly what Lions is all about, according to Sheehan.
Sheehan said the Lions are also welcoming more women to the ranks. Today, about 37 percent of the membership is female, he said. The current Lions president, Gudrun Bjort Yngvadottir of Gardabaer, Iceland, is the first female to hold the office.
No different than when he joined, Sheehan said new members are looking for the chance to help their community as well as to socialize.
Local clubs choose their own projects, and on the international level, Lions support projects and partnerships aimed at vision, hunger, environment and diabetes. Each year, the financial arm of Lions International provides $60 million to major projects.
The Lions are all volunteers, Sheehan included. All of his work as third vice president is on a voluntary basis. Support from his partners and co-workers at Rural Computer Consultants, his wife, Lori, and family, make his role as an international leader for Lions possible, he said.
"I couldn't do this myself,'' he said.
He jokingly tells his fellow international board members that as president, he will be inviting them to Bird Island for meetings in the Island Ballroom, where they will dine on funeral hotdish.
"One of the things I love about this organization is it is a huge family,'' Sheehan said. "You automatically bond with them because they want to accomplish the same things. It's like one huge family.''
And it will be a bigger one, if Sheehan realizes his goal as president to bring membership up to 1.5 million.