With the recent passing of our 20th anniversary, we thought it fitting to look back on the club's history and remember all that has come before. What follows is a brief look at our roots as viewed through facts, personal recollections, and early pictures collected from members past and present:
Birthed by a handful of bears in 1992, Bears of the Old Pueblo has spent the last 20+ years growing into an amazing organization. With approximately 100 members and 10+ events a
month, the club is quite active and hosts one of the best bear runs in the country. This was not always the case, however, and in looking back we can appreciate how much we've grown both as an organization and as a community.
Having attended several events sponsored by the Southwest Men at Large (SMAL) – a Girth and Mirth group in Phoenix – BOTOP's founding members enjoyed the camaraderie but grew tired of driving long distances to find it. As a result, discussions began in regards to forming a local club in Tucson. On the patio of the Venture-N, circa 1992, founding members Jim Snyder, Charles Cantrell, John Clark, Matti Hiltennum, Lindsay Hirsh, Gene Fields, Steven Zepp, Roy Walz, and Max Vosskuhler met for the first time to set things in motion.
The founders recount that "We were horny, lonely and fat…and we wanted to have sex." Spurned from the traditional gay scenes, these men desired a social club where they – and others like them – could finally fit in. Lindsay Hirsch recalls wanting "a place where I wasn't constantly worried about how my hair looked, was I wearing the correct 'uniform,' and [where I] wouldn't have to constantly be worried that I was 'too fat.' I wanted a place where I could relax, laugh and just be myself." He certainly wasn't alone in this sentiment, as evidenced by all who came together to make the club a reality.
While early members knew they wanted to have fun, however, agreement on the club's initial focus was not unilateral. Some people insisted on a social focus while others pushed for a leather and sex-centric outlook. Eventually, though, socialization won out as BOTOP's prime directive and the club began to officially come together. Roy Walz remembers "all the good times we had just getting everything together. When we decided on the name and Jim Snyder helped design the logo and folks volunteered to create the club banner…it was exciting." And in that excitement, the club set sights on its first big event: the infamous Spaghetti Dinner of 1992.
Charles Cantrell explains that "in the beginning, we had no membership dues. We initially thought of calling ourselves 'The Bears of Tucson' but then someone thought of 'Bears of the Old Pueblo' and that's what we went with. We marketed the meetings as a club for hairy big men and their admirers" and what better way to draw them in than with food? Taking place on the Venture-N's patio, Cantrell reports that the dinner "had a great turnout even though the club was very, very young." During that special dinner, early members of the club grew to realize just how special BOTOP would be.
Lindsay Hirsch remembers "finally feeling accepted and embraced just for who I was, being able to meet and interact with others who shared my sensibilities and [gaining] a feeling of belonging." Cantrell, too, wanted "to make friends and find men to enjoy activities with in a safe friendly environment – to find acceptance out in the big gay world. BOTOP helped us with that. It helped us meet people." While some have come and gone since that first dinner, a few like John Clark, Lindsay Hirsch, Roy Walz, and Charles Cantrell continue to be active members of the club even today. For their early service to BOTOP, they enjoy a lifetime membership.
After that first dinner, the club began having regular Thursday night meetings at the Venture, which Roy Walz remembers as being "always a fun time" despite the business aspects that sometimes accompanied them. A BOTOP flag and club banners were created and the group began to plan and execute beer busts, dinners, and other bear-friendly outings that would draw people in. That appeal stretched beyond just the local guys, however. Walz reports that even though there "were still road trips up to Phoenix to spend time with the guys up there, they were coming down just as often to see us." Flash forward 20+ years and the Bears of the Old Pueblo and the Bears of the West in Phoenix continue to crisscross the state to enjoy each other's' events.
Looking back on that first year, John Clark – who served as BOTOP's very first president – recounts that "We went from a few guys who had met through the Venture-N and by our involvement in SMAL to this huge group of folks… Being the first President was a challenge but we had a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for making the club work. I remember a lot of hugs and laughter." This all combined to make BOTOP's first year – and many to follow — a successful one.
By 1996, BOTOP had found its stride. With a stable membership and a variety of regular events on the calendar, the club decided it was time to tackle hosting a bear run. When planning for the first Fiesta began, the club looked to other bear runs for inspiration. Rather than focus on bar-centric events – as other runs did – a decision was made to plan excursions that allowed attendees to experience Tucson's unique culture and desert beauty. The group then settled on Fiesta taking place over the Martin Luther King Day weekend in January. This date was chosen to attract not just local bears, but those from colder climes who would seek out Tucson's warm weather as a mid-winter getaway. After a lot of collaboration and planning, the 1997 Fiesta de los Osos became a success. The event has continued this trend year after year ever since.
The years spanning the mid-Nineties-to-now hold many great memories for BOTOP and its members. There have been potlucks, camping trips, road trips to Colorado and New Mexico, visits to hippy communes, baths in natural hot springs, tubing adventures on the Salt River, pool parties, movie nights, game nights, beer busts, dinners-out, regular club meetings, Fiesta planning meetings, Sunday brunches, coffee nights, holiday parties, and much, much more. Now in its third decade of operation, modern day BOTOP has continued to provide members with ample opportunities for furry fun while also raising money for fantastic causes. To date, BOTOP has raised and donated almost $50,000 back to the community!
As we look to the future of BOTOP, one thing remains static: our drive to have fun and foster that sense of community we all hold so dear. Thank you to everyone who's made this club what it is today. We look forward to another twenty years of amazing memories with you!