Chester Optimist Club Collection

Chester Optimist Club Collection, 1980-2016

Collection Number:


Finding Aid Publication Date:

Published in 2019. ©Copyright Chester Public Library 2019

Descriptive Summary


Chester Optimist Club Collection


Chester Optimist Club




13 linear feet (16 boxes of varying sizes) and 86.8 GB of electronic data


From 1980 through the late 1990s, the Chester Optimist Club raised scholarship funds and held many local activities including the Art Show and Auction, Chester Science Fair, Halloween parade, oratory contests, and New York theatre trips. Likely their most famous annual event, documented extensively in this collection, was Turtle Racing. The Chester Optimist Club Collection contains hours of high-definition, video narrative histories from Club members and former officers, as well as photographs, scrapbooks, and other materials donated by club members. Along with detailed descriptions of what being a member and/or an officer of the Optimist Club was like, the subjects in the video recordings also describe what Chester was like when they first moved to the area and what has changed since. Some of the members interviewed for the collection spoke about their experience as young parents of young children in Chester, and what activities and sports they experienced during the 1970s and 1980s. Yearbooks (i.e., scrapbooks) from 1980-1989 document club activities, fundraisers, members, and officers. Digitized photographs include images of t-shirt designs, turtle races, and oratory contest winners. Also included are membership and Turtle Racing News newsletters.




Local History Department
Chester Public Library
250 W. Main Street
Chester, NJ 07930
Phone: (908) 879-7612
Fax:  (908) 879-8695

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Administrative Information

Conditions Governing Use:

This collection is open for research.

Physical Access:

The items in this collection may be used by patrons who abide by the guidelines ( of the Local History Department. Some items may not be available for use due to their fragile nature, and they have been digitized.

Technical Access:

Many of the items in this collection have been either digitized or created electronically. The Local History Librarian will make full-length oral history videos and digitized images available to patrons upon request. Chester Library computers may be used to experience the collection.

Conditions Governing Reproduction:

Copyright restrictions apply. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by copyright beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owner. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

All requests to reproduce, publish, quote from, or otherwise use collection materials must be submitted in writing to the Local History Librarian, Chester Public Library, 250 W. Main Street, Chester, NJ 07930.

Preferred Citation:

[Identification of item], Chester Optimist Club Collection of Chester Public Library, Chester, New Jersey.

Collection Processed By:

Debra Schiff, Local History Librarian in 2016

Finding Aid Author:

Debra Schiff, Local History Librarian

Description Control:

Description based on DACS.

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Founded by former Chester Borough Councilman Joe Hilber in 1980, the Chester Optimist Club was sponsored early in its tenure by the Jefferson Township Optimist Club. Other charter members included Larry Bartholomew, James Byrnes, Chuck Feller, Edwin Polito, Dan Pope, Bill Sill, and Dennis Whorley, among others. Many of the members were attracted to the Optimist Club for its informal, friendly atmosphere. Additionally, the activities were family based, and most members had young children. They also liked the motto of the Optimist Club “Friend of Youth.” Many became lifelong friends.

Each year, the Optimists held a Halloween Parade, Breakfast with Santa, and Turtle Racing in Chester. The annual Turtle Races drew up to 1,000 people each year. When NJ told the Optimists that the local turtles were endangered, and that people couldn’t race their own locally caught turtles, they bought loads of soup turtles from Oshkosh, WI. The bought turtles were rented to participants, and later turned loose in Chubb Park.

The Optimists also held a Youth Safety bicycle event each year, which hosted bicycle experts who taught kids how to ride and inspected the bikes for safety.

They also took over the Chester Science Fair, which still exists today. They held design contests for children to create t-shirts, hats, and other advertising for the turtle races. The Optimists also held annual oratory contests.

In its early years, the Chester Optimist Club began as a 36-member, all-male organization. During Ron McConnell’s presidency, the first female member was inducted in 1989. Many of the members worked at Bell Labs, either at the Chester location or elsewhere, having been transferred to New Jersey. They held regular meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at Oliver’s Restaurant, which is now Redwoods. The meetings were lively, informal, and social. The meetings began with the Pledge of Allegiance, a singing of America the Beautiful, and a reading of “The Optimist Creed.”

Members recruited people they knew to join the club and help with the activities and fundraising. They also helped with local causes. For example, in 1981, the Optimist Club helped move the Library from its location in a Quonset hut on East Main Street to its current location at 250 West Main Street. Spouses and children of members often participated in the fundraising activities, with many participating in the Turtle Races. The Optimists also sponsored several sports teams including girls’ soccer and baseball.

The members spent a significant portion of the spring and summer preparing for and carrying out the Turtle Races. It required obtaining bleachers from around Chester (they eventually bought and donated aluminum bleachers because the wooden ones became too unwieldy) and maintaining and building the Turtledrome. The Turtledrome was a concave, circular, freestanding structure where the turtles were raced. It was 20 ft in diameter with a wooden arm and a box at the end for placing the larger, snapping turtles during the early races. The concave area had a 15 degree bank so that the turtles would naturally race toward what they perceived as a horizon.

In 1982, the Club was required to have Rent-a-Turtle stands instead of allowing kids (and some adults) to capture and race found turtles. The N.J. Division of Fish, Game, and Wildlife prohibited the use of N.J. turtles in the races because collecting bog and wood turtles is illegal due to their endangered status. Each of the Turtle Racing News newsletters included detailed information on the rules and protection of turtles.

Local students were encouraged to participate in design contest for the event’s posters and t-shirts. Most of the participants in the design contests were elementary school children. The Optimists also brought a miniature version of the turtle races to the Metheny school for children and adults with medically complex developmental disabilities.

Optimist Club members would sell ads for the Turtle Racing News to raise enough money to be in a profit position prior to holding the race. A local business could purchase a full-page ad for $250. Many people in town, as well as in Mendham, Flanders, and Long Valley purchased ads.

All Optimist Clubs are retired to keep a scrapbook of the year’s activities, and these are well represented in this collection, from the Club’s inception. The Optimist Club slogan is “Friend of Youth,” and that attracted members who were interested in helping kids obtain scholarships and participate in educational and fun activities. However, after most of the members whose children had left for college or moved away, the club’s membership waned and disbanded in 1996.

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Scope and Content

The items donated to the Library for this collection document the administrative and fundraising activities of the Chester Optimist Club from its inception in 1980 through its waning years in the mid 1990s. Those materials include scrapbooks, photographs, correspondence, newsletters, and fundraising documents.

Three of the charter members of the club, James Byrnes, Edwin Polito, and Dennis Whorley, participated in individual recorded interviews in 2016, which led to the collecting of Optimist Club records by the Local History Department of Chester Library. During group interviews, the other participants were Ronald McConnell and William Robinson. Former Library Board member, Dennis Whorley worked with the Local History Librarian, Debra Schiff, to gather members of the club for the recordings. During the recordings, subjects donated materials related to the club’s activities such as the Turtle Races, fundraising, scholarships, oratorical contests, and the Chester Science Fair, among others.

In 2019, Linda Berliner, whose husband Neil was an active member and served as Chester Optimist Club President in the 1980s, donated his Optimist Club pins, a Turtle Races hat, and 6 of her son Noah’s t-shirts for the Turtle Races, some of them indicating “Staff.” She specifically requested that these items be added to this collection to be shared with the public.

The inherent value to the researcher lies in the collection’s documentation of a lively local organization’s efforts to raise scholarship funds for local youth. Additionally, the narrative interviews describe the subjects’ experiences moving to and living in Chester during the 1970s, working in the area during the 1970s-1990s, and raising children in Chester during the same period. Interviewees also speak at length about the socioeconomic and other changes to the area during the period.

All of the items in the collection, other than the recorded video interviews, were donated by Ed Polito, Ron McConnell, William Robinson, and Jim Byrnes.

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Organization and Arrangement

The Optimist Club Collection is divided into 15 series:

  1. Artifacts (1984, 1990, undated), 2 boxes, 1.5 linear feet
  2. Architectural Drawings (c. 1986), 1 box, 1.5 linear feet
  3. Awards (1990, 1995-1996), 1 folder and 1 box, 1 linear foot
  4. Clippings (1988-1996), 3 folders
  5. Correspondence (1991-1996), 5 folders
  6. Ephemera (1990-1996), 8 folders
  7. Events (1992-1995), 8 folders
  8. Financials (1991-1996), 10 folders
  9. Fundraising (1993), 1 folder
  10. Membership (1992-1995), 4 folders
  11. Newsletters (1985-1996), 7 folders
  12. Personal Histories (oral history interviews) (2016), 81.1 GB of data in 155 files
  13. Visual Materials, 5.6 GB of data in 105 files
  14. Yearbooks (1980-1989), 5 boxes, 2 linear feet
  15. Textiles (1983-1988), 1 oversized box, 2 linear feet

Files are arranged by individual donor (i.e., Ed Polito), then by topic and date.

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Index Terms

Corporate Names/Organizations Subject:

Chester Optimist Club
Optimist Club International


Fraternal organizations.


Berliner, Neil
Berliner, Noah
Burns, James
McConnell, Ronald
Polito, Edwin
Robinson, William
Whorley, Dennis


Chester (N.J.)
Chester Township (N.J.)
Morris County (N.J.)
New Jersey.

Genre Terms:

Administrative records
Oral history

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Container List

Box 1, Artifacts, 1984, 1990

Box Folder Description Dates
1 Optimist Club International baseball cap 1984
Chester Optimist Club Turtle Races polo shirt 1990
Optimist Club International Friend of Youth mug Undated
Chester Optimist Club Annual Turtle Races hat Undated

Box 2, Architectural Drawing, c. 1986

Box Folder Description Dates
2 Architectural Drawing of the Chester Optimist Club Turtle Racing Turtle Dome and bleachers set up c. 1986

Box 3, Ed Polito’s Files: Correspondence, Minutes, Membership, Financials, Events, Fundraising, Newsletters, Awards, Ephemera, and Clippings; Ron McConnell’s President’s File; and Bill Robinson’s Newsletters and Clippings, 1980-1996, with gaps

Box Folder Description Dates
3 1 Polito, Awards 1990
2 Polito, Board Meeting Minutes 1993
3 Polito, Correspondence 1991, 1995-1996
4 Polito, Correspondence, Awards Nominations 1996
5 Polito, Correspondence, Nominations 1995-1996
6 Polito, Correspondence, Science Fair Sponsorship 1994
7 Polito, Devereaux Deerhaven 1994
8 Polito, Ephemera, Awards 1996
9 Polito, Ephemera, Breakfast with Santa Placemats 1995
10 Polito, Ephemera, Bumper Sticker c. 1990s
11 Polito, Ephemera, Calendar 1996
12 Polito, Ephemera, Halloween Parade Ribbon c. 1990s
13 Polito, Ephemera, Installation and Awards Dinner 1994
14 Polito, Ephemera, Turtle Racing Card c. 1990s
15 Polito, Events, Art Show and Auction 1993, 1995-1996
16 Polito, Events, Art Show 1994
17 Polito, Events, Chester Science Fair 1992
18 Polito, Events, Chester Science Fair 1994
19 Polito, Events, Turtle Race Poster Contest 1992-1993
20 Polito, Financials 1991-1993
21 Polito, Financials 1993-1995
22 Polito, Financials 1994
23 Polito, Financials, Budget 1993-1995
24 Polito, Financials, Receipts 1994-1995
25 Polito, Financials, Science Fair 1995
26 Polito, Financials, Turtle Races 1994
27 Polito, Financials Turtle Racing News, Ad Purchases and Insurance 1994-1995
28 Polito, Financials Turtle Racing News, Ad Purchases 1995
29 Polito, Financials, Theater Trips 1994
30 Polito, Fundraising, Funding Prospects List 1993
31 Polito, Materials Removed from Photographs Undated
32 Polito, Membership Roster 1992
33 Polito, Membership Rosters 1994
34 Polito, Membership Rosters 1995
35 Polito, Newsletters, Turtle Racing News 1985-1989
36 Polito, Newsletters, Turtle Racing News 1993-1994
37 Polito, Clippings 1988-1996, with gaps
38 Polito, Notes 1991
39 Polito, Optimist International, Annual Reports 1992-1995
40 Polito, Optimist International, Bicycle Safety Week and Respect for Law Planning Guides 1994
41 Polito, Optimist International, Certificates 1985
42 Polito, Optimist International, Membership Chairperson Packet 1994
43 Polito, Optimist International, New Jersey District Directory 1989-1990
44 Polito, Optimist International, Programming Chair Packet 1994
45 Polito, Optimist International, Programming Guide 1997
46 Polito, Letterhead, Blank Undated
47 Polito, Public Relations c. 1995
48 McConnell, Correspondence 1995
49 McConnell, Agenda 1996
50 McConnell, Yearly Plans 1995
51 McConnell, Ephemera, Flyers, Art Show and Auction 1995-1996
52 McConnell, Events, Breakfast with Santa 1995
53 McConnell, Events, Chester Science Fair 1995
54 McConnell, Events, Installation Dinner 1995
55 McConnell, Membership List 1995
56 McConnell, Newsletters, On the Bright Side 1993-1994
57 McConnell, Newsletters, On the Bright Side 1994-1995
58 McConnell, Newsletters, The Gavel 1996
59 McConnell, President’s File 1980
60 McConnell, The Optimist Creed and Optimist’s Wife’s Creed 1988, Undated
61 Robinson, Clippings, Turtle Races 1988
62 Robinson, Newsletters, Turtle Racing News 1988
63 Robinson, Science Fair 1989
64 Robinson, Visual Materials, T-Shirt Logos 1982

Box 4, Ed Polito’s Files: Clippings, Devereaux Deerhaven, Letterhead; Charlie McConnell Files: President’s File; Robinson Files: Visual Materials, Events, Newsletters, Clippings; 1980-1996, with gaps   

Box Folder Description Dates
4           1 Devereaux Deerhaven 1994
          2 Letterhead Undated
          3 President’s File 1980
          4 Visual Materials, T-shirt logos 1982
          5 Events, Chester Science Fair 1989
          6 Newsletters, Turtle Racing News 1988
          7 Clippings, Turtle Races 1988

Box 5, Yearbooks, 1980, 1981

Box Description Dates
5 Yearbook 1980
Yearbook 1981

Box 6, Yearbooks, 1982, 1983

Box Description Dates
6 Yearbook 1982
Yearbook 1983

Box 7, Yearbooks, 1984, 1985

Box Description Dates
7 Yearbook 1984
Yearbook 1985

Box 8, Yearbooks, 1986, 1989

Box Description Dates
8 Yearbook 1986
Yearbook 1989

Box 9, Awards, 1995-1996

Box Description Dates
9 President’s Appreciation Award, Charles Zeichner 1995-1996
President’s Appreciation Award, Norman Ziesse 1995-1996
Key Member, Joseph Bilotta 1995-1996
Key Member, Wayne Schultz 1995-1996
Key Member, Salvatore Santangelo 1995-1996

Box 10, Artifacts, undated

Box Description Dates
10 2 Self-inking rubber stamps Undated

Box 11, Berliner Donation, Artifacts, c. 1980s

Box Description Dates
11 Berliner Donation, Turtle Races Hat c. 1980s

Box 12, Berliner Donation, Artifacts, c. 1980s

Box Description Dates
12 Berliner Donation, Optimist International Lapel Pins c. 1980s

Box 13, Berliner Donation, Artifacts, c. 1980s

Box Description Dates
13 Berliner Donation, Noah Berliner’s Turtle Races T-Shirts 1983-1988


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