Bird Island man, ‘Brian the Lion,’ now presides over Lions Clubs International
BY PATRICIA BUSCHETTE
Many people in the State of Minnesota have heard the quotation, or seen the bumper stickers, “Where the hell is Bird Island?”
Bird Island’s location became known in the 1970s thanks to Barry Zevan, the Weatherman. More recently, Bird Island has a new claim to fame. It is now the home of the first Lions Club member in 100 years from the State of Minnesota to preside over its International organization.
Brian Sheehan of Bird Island was inducted President of Lions International on June 28 in Montreal, Canada. He and his wife, Lori, left June 14 for a global visit. In a travel itinerary recited from memory, he quoted travel plans made by a Lions International travel coordinator that include such destinations as New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Calgary, California, Scandinavia, Indonesia, Australia, and Africa. He will meet with leadership of these countries, and has a session scheduled with the Pope. He has met with former president Jimmy Carter, pointing out that President Carter is a Lion. “I will be in India at Christmas, and will not return to the U.S. until after that,” he added thoughtfully.
There are 200 countries with membership in Lions International, and of the 34 board members, not all speak English. Technology allows representatives to meet online globally, overcoming language challenges through software called Kudo. It is a Zoom-like product with real time multilingual translation.
Lori Sheehan, Brian’s wife, is also a Lion, and is an integral component in Brian’s leadership activities. As he explained it, “When the organization named me as International President, they got two for one. We travel the world together, and give talks together.”
Brian learned about leadership and support for the community through the example of his parents. His father, Fabian Sheehan, was a founding person in many organizations, a charter member of Bird Island Lions, and was awarded the Melvin Jones Fellowship Award for service. “I was the youngest of eight children,” he said, and helped on projects including selling Christmas trees. “The coolest times were when we did Meals on Wheels, making food and taking plates to people. Dad’s strides were long, and I had to run to keep up with him!”
“In the early years, we took the Lions float to community celebrations across Minnesota. When we brought the Lions float to community parades, people asked where the hell is Bird Island?”
Fabian Sheehan was the kind of person who saw opportunity where others missed it. He suggested creating bumper stickers with the question, “Where the hell is Bird Island?” He then proposed sending one to Barry Zevan the Weatherman on KARE 11. It was Barry Zevan who brought the town of Bird Island to the public consciousness. From that point on, many Minnesota car bumpers posed that question.
“For several years, Dad would check the rusty thermometer outside his window at 5 a.m. and p.m., and called Barry Zevan to report on the nightly news show. “If Dad wasn’t available to do so, we were drafted.” Brian explained. As the story goes, Fabian added five degrees each time so Bird Island would be the warmest place in Minnesota!
Brian grew up in the family business, Sheehan Gas Company in Bird Island. The connection to computers began with selling computers to local people, but that venture was not as successful as it could be, so Brian began developing software. In his words, “If I don’t enjoy it, how can I change it? One has to think outside the box. That’s why I like programming.”
Rural Computer Consultants, Inc. grew out from its early stages in a one-room office to a large facility. The company purchased St. Mary’s Convent, across the street from St. Mary’s Catholic Church. An addition was later constructed to that building. The company has more than 50 people, and are celebrating 40 years in business this year.
Brian’s sister, Susie Sheehan–Peterson, is part owner and manager of the business, and two of Brian and Lori’s children are associated with the company.
Brian has focused on Lions International from the time he was first asked to be a Lion in 1991. “After the first meeting, they said to me, ‘How would you like to be President?’”
Bird Island has been the focus of many local projects. For example, the local grocery store in Bird Island was going under and would be closed. Community leaders stepped in, and through local investment, created Island Market, to ensure a local supply of food.
“Look around the community,” Brian said and pointed out examples of the shared effort of Lions in Bird Island. “There are park shelters and playground equipment. The City doesn’t have funds. Every spring and fall we have a work night.”
It was with pride that he pointed out that Bird Island has the 13th best ballpark in the State of Minnesota. “The Lions put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to keep it going,” he said. And fundraising? “We have been doing a demolition derby for 40 years. It is a fundraiser for us, so we turn that money around and now give back to the community. That’s what Lions are about. Every single dollar goes back to the community.”
Since the early days, Brian’s understanding and appreciation for the work done by Lions International has only grown, and in 2022, he moved from International First Vice President to the Presidency.
While Brian asserts that one’s own community is first and foremost, being a Lion, one is automatically involved in world issues. “We have a foundation, Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), the charitable arm of Lions Clubs International that did a campaign involving 300 million Lions members all over the world. “If there is a disaster, the District Governor can make a phone call, and can get $10,000 tomorrow that is distributed in that area.”
The foundation provides assistance whether it’s an international crisis, or communities that wish to enhance the service of its citizens. The Bird Island chapter is considering the development of a Splash Pad and Pickle Ball court.
He explained that when people give to their foundation, the entire dollar goes to people in need. “When the first bomb went off in Ukraine, Lions found a place for displaced persons and refugees. Every district in Ukraine received $10,000.
The focus of Lions, Brian explained, is humanitarian need. “We are not political. Politics don’t get in the way. Lions from Pakistan and India; Lions from Russia and Ukraine work together. We are involved in United Nations meetings, and have four UN meetings coming up to see how we can work together. We work with such matters as drug enforcement and bullying in school.
When asked what he would like the general public to understand about Lions that they don’t know, Brian quickly responded. “We are here to help in any way we can. Look into clubs and join clubs if you want to do something for a community and want to be a part of something.” He went on to tell of a meeting with Rotary, Kiwanis, and Optimist International. Along with Lions, they explored ideas that try to accomplish the same things.
Brian describes himself as a team player. “Together we can do better.” That wasn’t always the case, he added. “Lions have helped me out. I truly was an introvert. I would rather sit in my room writing software.” Lions has brought him into the role of International service on which he is embarking.
“The biggest thing for me is to share with others the opportunity to help their community out. Wonderful things are happening, not only in communities, but worldwide,” Brian said.
“We push service,” Brian pointed out, citing local services for all ages, such as young people filling sandboxes. “We are building our foundation,” he said, and pointed out that the United Nations reported that more people this year than last year need humanitarian assistance. “Lions International has to be prepared to serve 40% more people, and we must think big,” he advises. He loves the fact that a team is stronger than an individual. “A team can do amazing things.”
Lions club philosophy runs deep in the DNA of the Sheehan family. “We have four children,” Brian said. Three are Lions.
Adventures lies ahead for Brian and Lori Sheehan, and it promises to be a fantastic ride. “Brian the Lion,” as he has been called, is ready for the challenge.