American Club Brussels
The International social club with an American heart
On that date, a group of American Businessmen in the Brussels region formed The American Club of Brussels with the adoption of by-laws and the election of a Board of Governors and Club Officers.
The early spring of 1919 had marked the arrival in Brussels of representatives of American business interests. Many of these Americans had been in the country before or during World War I in connection with the work of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, or other war missions, however, they were now returning for periods of indefinite residence. As they began getting together very frequently for lunch, the idea of formalizing such activities through the organization of an American Club took root and discussions became reality on January 15, 1921.
The first President was Mr. S. H. Cross, while The Honorable Brand Whitlock, the American Ambassador and always a strong supporter of The Club, became its first Honorary President. The organization undertook several activities from the start which were well-attended and remain strong features of The Club program today - regular luncheons, with speakers of prominence, and two or three social events per year, including buffet-dances.
At the same time, in Antwerp, a similar group of Americans organized The American Club of Antwerp with the support of Mr. George Messersmith, the American Consul there. The two clubs cooperated to sponsor the Independence Day Picnics at that time, but even more significant, together they lent important support as early as 1923 to the Overseas Memorial Day Association in the preparation of the proper observance of Memorial Day at the American Cemetery in Waregem.
The Club had earlier established a fund to aid worthy, distressed Americans. This was administered by the American Consul in Brussels and maintained over many years, but by the late 70s this fund became adequately supported by the US Government and The American Club contribution was no longer required.
While initially an all-American membership, the Brussels Club took steps very quickly to open the doors to Belgian and other International businessmen. In 1923, a revision of the initial by-laws set forth the objective of The Club "to cultivate social intercourse among American residents and travelers and to promote goodwill between Americans and Belgians".
Further, the Board of Governors was authorized to invite citizens of nations other than the United States, who might have American interests or who might support the objectives for which The Club was formed, to become associate members. Thus, The American Club of Brussels has had non-American members since almost the beginning and over the years, there has been a steady increase in their role and importance to Club life.
The first Club yearbook, which included The Club by-laws, was published in 1924, at which time a more definite form of organization, including effective operating committees, took shape. A provision was incorporated in the by-laws stating that henceforth the American Ambassador to Belgium would automatically become the Honorary President of The Club. This reflected the strong support which The Club had received from the Embassy and the Ambassador during these early formative years. This has continued to this day, with the American Embassy Staff recognizing and appreciating the contribution of The American Club of Brussels to improved Belgian/American relations at the people to people level.
The Club continued to grow and play an important role in the Brussels American and American-Belgian community. In 1926, the Honorable Adolphe Max, Burgomaster, was honored at a Club luncheon and was made an Honorary Member of The Club. This began the tradition which has carried through to today that Brussels Burgomasters are named Honorary members. With the establishment and evolution of NATO, and The European Community, The USA Ambassadors to these organizations have been added as Honorary Members, as have The Ambassadors to Belgium of the two neighboring countries of The United States on The North American Continent, Canada and The Republic of Mexico.
One of the most dramatic events of this early period was the planning and coordination of a reception and banquet in Brussels in honor of Captain Charles A. Lindbergh who graciously consented to fly to Brussels on May 28, 1927 to be The Club's guest. The previous weekend he had completed his historic non-stop flight from New York to Paris. The events surrounding the Lindbergh visit involved many Belgian dignitaries and are interesting stories in themselves.
Another event in 1927 which added to the laurels of The Club was a special luncheon held on October 2nd for the officials of the American Legion who were on a European tour. Again, the list of dignitaries attending, both Belgian and American, was long indeed.
By 1928 The American Club of Brussels was clearly established as a vital representative of the American presence in Brussels and Belgium and a very positive element in the fostering of strong and healthy Belgian-American relations. The membership in 1928, in addition to five non-resident and as many Honorary members, totaled 123, of which 28% were non- Americans.
Unfortunately, The Club records are not complete for many of the intervening years leading up to the post-World War II period . Until it became an A.S.B.L. in 1983, The Club had been essentially an informal and private group. What archives The Club had maintained moved as presidents and other officers came and went. Lacking a regular home or any legal obligation to maintain records, The Club most probably had documents that were sparse indeed, or more likely, these records were carried back to the States in the private papers of repatriated Americans.
The Club enjoyed its largest membership and perhaps its greatest period of activity from 1950 to 1970. Again, this was a postwar era when many Americans came to Europe both in the administration of the Marshall Plan and later in the period of major investment by American corporations. These were truly exciting years for Brussels, with the signing, in 1957, of the treaties which set up the Common Market, followed by the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. The American business rush to Europe became a stampede, and many of the "pioneers" for American companies found The American Club to be not only a place to meet other American businessmen as well as sympathetic, helpful Belgians, but also a source of information, ideas and counsel as they learned to operate in the unfamiliar European environment.
In the 50s and 60s the official bodies of the Brussels and Belgian Governments were not as well set up to help foreign businesses establish themselves as is the case today. The Regional Governments, which today are so very helpful, did not exist in this time period. The American Club of Brussels, therefore, became an information source of last resort to these struggling American Businessmen.
While primarily a club of business orientated Americans, Belgians and American-minded nationals of other countries, The Club has always been mindful of its role in fostering improved Belgian-American relations at the people-to-people level. A major event in this continuing area of interest was the establishment of the United Fund of Belgium by The Club leaders in the early 70's. The Fund, now a freestanding entity with its own recognized place in the community, was sponsored by The American Club and was the object of the energies of The Club Officers and members. In its years of infancy until today, a large number of the volunteers who provide the effort behind Fund campaigns have been American Club members.
In addition to such indirect aid, The Club has, over the years, quietly supported a number of worthy charities as well as educational and cultural activities. Community awareness and service has been a constant, integral feature of Club thinking and action throughout its history.
The Club, which became an A.S.B.L. in 1983, has gone through a number of structural changes.
While the total number of members on the Board of Governors has been increased, one fourth of the board members are still newly elected each year for four year terms. Retaining this long established election process provides some measure of continuity to Club management and has proved to be of great value.
A stipulation as to the percentage of the membership which could be non-American has been changed several times over the years, but was finally dropped altogether in 1979. The definition of non-Americans as "Associate" members was eliminated in 1983, with no qualification of citizenship categorizing active members. Further, the restriction that only American nationals could be officers of The Club was eliminated.
The only policy which continues to be upheld that insures The Club remain substantially American is the stipulation that 70% of the elected members of the Board of Governors must be American citizens. This stipulation is still strongly supported by The Club's non-American members, who want The Club to retain its "American character and image." Non-Americans currently constitute nearly 50% of the total membership of approximately 400, and this is certainly compatible with the philosophy and the objectives of the founders of The American Club of Brussels.
Today just under 20% of the membership are women. The original and several revisions of the by-laws make no reference to the gender of members, and there is no hint, from the research of records available, that any deliberate discrimination against women was accepted policy of The Club. At some time, however, and probably following the establishment of The American Women's Club in 1951, The Club began to be referred to as "The American Men's Club", although this was never the correct name of The Club. In 1974, however, it was, in fact, a men's club, and when a lady, a businesswoman, applied for membership, this question had to be faced. A poll of the membership at that time was highly in favor of her admission, which was effected promptly. Two male members who resigned from The Club because of this, rejoined shortly thereafter.
As women have become increasingly important in the business world, so have they increased in strength in The Club. In 1985 the first woman joined the Board of Governors, in 1994 the first woman was elected President of The Club, and there are currently ten women Board members. As a further comment on this non-issue, it was specified in the most recent writing of The Club Statutes that gender cannot be a factor in the consideration of applications for membership, and further that the spouse of any named member shall enjoy full privileges as a member. In retrospect The Club, in 1974, was only keeping up with reality in the business and professional world.
The membership can be proud of the role The American Club of Brussels has played in the international community in Brussels these 90 years. It is important to recognize that while the people who have been the driving forces behind The Club have been predominately business and professional people, the overriding theme of Club activity has been in the human sphere of international relations, and good-will and understanding between people and cultures; the bringing of people together in convivial environments, usually for purposeful pursuits. With the increasing stature and importance of Brussels as a major international city, the role of The American Club as a part of the American presence in Europe can only represent an increased opportunity and challenge to The Club.