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Some of them have hiked across a hundred or more countries. Others have dived deep into the oceans off every continent.
One member of the Adventurers Club of Los Angeles has walked on the moon, while another rode a crashed airplane to the ground and walked away from the wreckage.
Still, for some members of this venerable institution that has been meeting once a week since 1921, their biggest challenge may lie ahead: Deciding whether to admit women to what has always been a “gentleman-only” club.
One member angrily resigned after past president Marc Weitz suggested the idea. Initially the club’s board of directors unanimously supported him, Weitz says, but as things grew more acrimonious three board members had second thoughts.
The controversy has brought a rare moment of discord to a group of ah-shucks kind of guys who quietly go out and do amazing things, then meet just as quietly on Thursday nights to shoot the breeze over a meat-and-potatoes dinner in a clubhouse hidden above a drugstore in a modest LA neighborhood.
“It’s been quite divisive,” acknowledges board member Kevin Lee, choosing his words carefully. “Some of the folks opposed think it would hurt the club’s camaraderie. Others say if we let women in they should be as qualified as men.”
Not that most members don’t think women are as qualified. They sometimes attend as guests and discuss their own adventures. One who did so recently was Nancy Miller, a registered nurse who has walked on all seven continents, climbed Africa’s highest peak and stood on both the North and South Poles.
“Some of our women guests have come in with credentials so good that they’ve made our members cringe,” past president Bob Silver says with a smile. Still, this 50-year member is leaning toward voting no. The group’s full voting membership, 113 men, will have the final say when ballots are counted Thursday night.
For one thing, Silver and other members say, women already can join the Explorers Club, an international group. The Adventurers Club of LA has always been just for men, ever since its founder, Capt. Jack Roulac, took seriously a toast to “gentlemen adventurers” that was raised at a 1912 gathering in New York hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Only men who can prove their adventures have “taken them off the beaten path” are considered by the club, whose members vote on who gets in. Members past and present have climbed the world’s tallest mountains, walked across entire countries, circumnavigated the globe, even won a Medal of Honor for bravery in combat.
“Everybody in this room has done something fantastic,” says member Jay Foonberg. “They just don’t think it’s fantastic. They just think it’s fun.”
Foonberg has run marathons on every continent, although now in his 70s he admits he’s slowing down some. These days he’s running half-marathons in every state.
Silver, another world traveler, was a pioneer in the development of early surfboards and has been to scores of countries. He was tossed in jail once in India for sneaking in disguised as a soccer player.
Lee has dived in the oceans off every continent, including Antarctica, where the water temperature was 29 degrees and the only thing that kept it from freezing was the salt content.
“It’s a fun hobby,” he says modestly.
Although most of the guys are regular folk, the club has counted its share of celebrities. Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, recently joined. “Titanic” director James Cameron, who piloted a small submarine to the deepest point on Earth, is also a member.
The club is a museum to adventure, with dozens of mounted and stuffed animals from all over the world. There’s an autographed flight helmet from Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the club member whose Doolittle’s Raiders attack on Japan helped change the course of World War II.
In the dining room is the kayak another member, John Goddard, took 4,258 miles down the Nile River when he became the first person to complete such a journey in 1951.
Weitz says has a list of women he’d like to bring in and one of them is Andrea Donnellan, a NASA geophysicist whose study of earthquakes has taken her to Mongolia, Bolivia and the Antarctic. She’s been a frequent guest and is often asked to speak of her adventures, and says she’d join in a minute.
“I get them and I think they get me,” she says, adding adventurers, male or female, make up a special breed.
But if Thursday’s vote is no, she will harbor no ill will.
“It is kind of surprising in this day and age, but I’m OK with it,” she says of the no-women rule. “I like the people, regardless.”