HITTING THE CENTURY MARK: Jefferson Rotary celebrates 100 years of local service
By BRANDON HURLEY
Jefferson’s Rotary initiation began a century ago with a pair of nine inch, squealing pigs, who not surprisingly, caused enough ruckus to halt the initial proceedings.
The 2022 version of the local club is a far cry from those pesky barn animals, but the purpose remains the same - to serve the greater good.
Jefferson Rotary celebrates its centennial birthday in May, recognizing 100 years of community service, fundraising and camaraderie.
The local organization got its start in 1922 behind the inspiring initiative of former Jefferson Bee editor Paul Stillman. The community man was tickled with glee after attending a Rotary meeting in Des Moines. When he returned to Jefferson, he quickly gathered a few businessmen, and together they began compiling a list of potential members on March 21. Just two months later, the Boone Rotary Club was on hand to recognize Jefferson’s Charter night, with 129 persons in attendance. T. Edgar Gamble was the club’s first secretary.
The Boone Rotarians gifted the Jefferson club the aforementioned baby pigs, an odd but meaningful gesture. Stillman’s introductory speech was cut short by those same rowdy pigs, as the room erupted in laughter, rendering Stillman’s voice useless.
The cost of dinner during the 1920s was 75 cents per person. They initially met in the dining room of the Lincoln Hotel. Today’s rates have rocketed all the way up to $12 per meal, and they now meet in the Jefferson Community Golf Course clubhouse. The group raised funds for renovations of the kitchen as well as the sound system.
Rotary International certainly hasn’t been perfect since its national inception in 1905. It took until a Supreme Court ruling in 1987 to allow women to join the organization. Three Jefferson residents became the first local female members in 1989 - Sandy Ehrig, Janet Proctor and Darla Vander Plaats. Joyce Gitch was Jefferson’s first-ever woman president in 1997, with Jacque Andrew following in 1999. Tori Riley is the current Jefferson president while Dr. Susan Laehn will take over as club president in July. The club has taken tremendous strides since the 80s.
Oddly enough, in the early days of Rotary, only one man from each profession was allowed membership. Picnics were common in the early years. Jefferson Rotarians met with members from the Farm Bureau and the Commercial Club for a hearty lunch, and even one hot summer day actually forced the club outside because the dining room was too hot.
Rotarians focus on seven areas of importance: water, literacy, peace, community and economic development, maternal child health, disease prevention and treatment and the environment.
“The whole idea of Rotary is service above self,” Andrew said. “Serving others is more important than serving ourselves. So Rotarians have done all kinds of things. We’ve read to school kids, planted trees and many other projects.”
Jefferson’s peak was around 70 members while the total today hovers just above 40 - men and women.
The major fundraiser for Jefferson Rotary’s local scholarship program was once a chicken bbq, which began in the 1970s. The event was an entire day ordeal, complete with massive, charcoal grills. The 12-member crew would start burning the charcoal at 8 in the morning. They’d baste the chickens and cook them. The money from the ticket sales was used for the scholarships. The BBQ continued for roughly 30 years until the late 90s. The cook-out ended because the club actually wasn’t raising as much money as they had envisioned once the materials and chickens were paid for. Larry Fie then suggested a yearly donation of $50 from each member and live auction was later born.
“We decided there are better ways to make money,” long-time Rotarian Rick Morain said. “So that’s when the auction started. Larry went down to Atlantic’s club auction and came back with all these ideas.”
Jefferson’s Rotary fundraiser has generated more than $600,000 in its 20 plus years of existence. The BBQ brought in roughly $1,200 each year for nearly 30 years.
One of Rotary International’s most impactful projects was when members distributed the polio vaccine in India. Andrew was one of the key contributors in the door-to-door efforts.
The Rotarians navigated homes in Delhi and nearby Sonipat. They vaccinated mass groups
at schools and bus stations. They brought along an interpreter to help with the language barrier, giving out shots to children five and younger.
It was quite the rewarding experience, Andrew said.
“We had people stop on the street, in their cars, and say ‘I have my child with me, would you give them a vaccine?” she said.
In honor of the 100-year milestone, Jefferson’s centennial project is their gift of $50,000 to help construct a dog park at the new animal shelter.
It’s the club’s “centennial gift to the community,” but is far from their first initiative.
“We’ve given money to projects all over the county, from the Webb House to the Early Learning Center,” Laehn said.
Andrew was inspired by the international reach of Rotary. She remembers Jennifer Jones, the president of the club in Windsor, Canada, pushing through on 9/11 honoring their US neighbors, and showing support for the members in the U.S.
That connection, that feeling of purpose is what has brought many Rotarians together throughout the years.
Morain was inspired early on as well.
“When I came back from grad school, I wanted to be a useful part of this community. Rotary is a good way to help me do that,” Morain said, who’s been a member in Jefferson for more than 50 years.
“If you feel an urge to be useful and to serve your community or other people in whatever venue, a service club is a good way to do that,” he added. “You get a feeling of satisfaction by being a member of an organization in addition to your own individual work.”
The camaraderie is special, something not easily accessible once adults advance through the requirements of education and schooling. A collective working together to better the community is a huge draw, Andrew said.
“There’s a plus factor of being part of a group that’s working on something, as opposed to doing it individually,” she said. “It’s kind of lonesome out there, working on something by yourself. But when you work together as a group, there’s the aggregate of the energy that comes with doing something together.”
Laehn harkens back to the international aspect of Rotary, and she hopes to one day soon reignite her love for travel and help humans in other countries. Though, like Andrew mentioned, the sense of community Rotary provides both locally and nationally, is something not easily duplicated.
“I think that’s something that’s just so lacking in American life,” Laehn said. “There is research that says bad things happen in the world when we don’t have strong community organizations. So I like to think I’m doing my little part to sort of keep American society healthy and keep Jefferson healthy.”
The local club has sponsored the Bell Tower Festival parade for decades, and the group hosts annual leaf-raking outings with area students. They invite speakers to share their work at the weekly meetings, while the organization tries to welcome each new member as best they can. Jefferson Rotary tries to zero in on areas of passion. They believe a strong connection to the cause creates better outcomes.
“One of the things we’ve been trying to focus on is when people are considering joining our club, we want to ask them what it is they are passionate about. What do you care about?” Laehn said. “If you come to Rotary, we can work on that with you together because we have so many grant funding opportunities available.
In a world where so often it’s ‘what can you give?’ this is a way for whatever it is that you want to give, we can help you give it and provide support both financially and with (other) people.”
That consideration, the ability to listen while also tying projects together is what Laehn feels has allowed Jefferson to power through the century mark. The work speaks for itself.
“It’s ethos (is what has made it last). People join because we have good causes and we do good work,” Laehn said. “But, I think Jefferson is a special place, too.”
Jefferson Rotary will host its celebration of 100 years “Service above Self” from 5-7 p.m. Sunday, May 15 at the Rotary Room at the Jefferson Community Golf Course. A program will commence at 5:30 p.m., highlighting a number of the group’s most impressive projects.