A Brief History of SEMM

by Mernie Hines

General Mensa History

Mensa’s beginnings were an auspicious mix of wacky and wonderful. The British founders were Roland Berrill, an Australian-English eccentric, and Lancelot Lionel Ware, a brilliant biologist-barrister. They met on a train from Cambridge to London and agreed that there should be a society for people with high IQs.

In November 1946, they held the first meeting of Mensa. At first the name was to be “Mens,” for mind in Latin, but that had already been used elsewhere, so “Mensa” (meaning roundtable) was the next choice.

Berrill staged the dramatic debut meeting in Cambridge, with a female member presiding as the “Corps D’Esprit Queen” in royal robes. The other five members wore formal clothes and sipped wine. Later the queen was replaced by more usual club routines such as monthly roundtable meetings, annual gatherings and directories of members’ skills and interests based on a constitution written by founder Berrill.

Berrill led Mensa until 1952, when Victor Serebriakoff became International Chairman and guided Mensa’s world-wide expansion to 70,000 members in 29 countries.

In 1960, the New York newspaper Village Voice published an article on British Mensa leading many Americans to write for membership applications. Four members held their first meeting in Brooklyn (no royalty there) and organized so well that the next year they had a public relations drive and gained 55 members. Local Secretary (President) Peter Sturgeon hired Margot Seitelman to handle the paperwork. The New York group developed into a national organization and Seitelman served the organization until her death in 1990.

Leaders including John Codella, Jules Singer, H. Ahrend, Sander Rubin, Marvin Grosswirth, Charles Fallon, Gabe Werba, Henry Noble and Amy Shaughnessy have served as Chairman of the American Mensa committee since 1960.

SEMM’s History

Meanwhile, out in Detroit, 12 Mensa members had their first meeting at the Halfway House on East Baltimore Street on Thursday, December 10, 1964. An undercover reporter wrote up the meeting in the Detroit Free Press the next day. Even though the article was critical, it triggered queries about joining Detroit Mensa. Gabe Werba was elected Acting Local Secretary.

The Detroit chapter gathered members from all over Michigan, southern Canada and northern Ohio. Most of the groups later became chapters themselves. Michigan Mensa became a traveling show, going from Lafayette Towers apartments to DeHoCo (Detroit House of Correction—a member was assistant superintendent) to various homes for meetings.

For a while, Mensa had “headquarters” in the Leland House Hotel. Later the group moved to Detroit’s Crystal House motel for general meetings. Other sites including Birmingham House and Birmingham Center for Continuing Education; Guaranty Federal Savings and Loan and Greenfield Congregational Church (both in Dearborn) were used for general meetings before SEMM found its current home at the Southfield Civic Center. (We now meet at the Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church in Southfield.—Ed.)

Many have helped shape Mensa as a world-wide society. In the United States, Marvin Grosswirth wrote IQ puzzle books that brought attention to Mensa. Gabe Werba initiated “Colloquium,” the gathering that beings Mensa thinkers together for study and sociability. Harper Fowley developed the newsletter Isolated M especially for those Mensans who live in areas without local chapters (there are many), as well as other Mensans interested in good reading.

Gabe Werba and Edith LaCroix started the local newsletter, M-Pathy, in August 1965. Gabe also set up the first RG at the Book Cadillac in 1966. John and Rohe Snow held the first Bash at their home in Union Lake.

The list of celebrities among the local membership has included former Ford Motor Company president Donald Peterson and author Joyce Carol Oates.

The people named here and lots of other great folks have made Mensa what it is today—a growing, changing family with room for all the wacky and wonderful members to meet, greet and work with each other.