The 1.2 million-member organization of Rotary International had somewhat of a simple start. As most people and businesses do, Paul P. Harris, a Chicago attorney, started rotating to different places to eat lunch with his friends, exchanging ideas, and networking. On Feb. 23, 1905, the Rotary Club of Chicago was born. Less than nine years later, the Rotary Club of Evansville formed on Dec. 9, 1913. The club received its charter on March 1, 1914, which marks this year as its 100th anniversary. To celebrate, the Rotary Club of Evansville is hosting a Gala Centennial Celebration at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 1 at The Old National Events Plaza.
“This club has probably been the prominent service club in the city,” says Jeffrey Berger, who was selected to be the club’s president during its centennial year. “We are 240 plus members strong. It’s a special time when a lot of service clubs are struggling right now. A lot of clubs are struggling in membership and we’re maintaining, holding on, and doing great, and now this is our year to celebrate all of these accomplishments.”
Berger, who works as Vice President, Chartered Wealth Advisor and Financial Consultant at Hilliard Lyons, has been with the Rotary Club of Evansville for 17 years. He joined at 26 when he moved to Evansville as the then-executive director at the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra. Jock Moody, a board member of the EPO and longtime member of Rotary, told Berger to join, and he did.
“I had no idea what Rotary even was,” Berger says. “For a long time, all I did was come to meetings. First, I came purely for networking. My goal was to tell some people about the orchestra, raise money, sell some tickets, and whatever happened happened. Then I started to get involved, and you start to learn about the international component (34,000 clubs in more than 200 countries and geographical areas) and the role in the community, and it’s amazing.”
The Rotary Club of Evansville meets every Tuesday (a tradition that has been kept for 100 years) at noon to around 1 p.m. to eat lunch while reviewing club business and listening to keynote speakers. Annual dues are $640.
Evansville’s club, the 102nd charter, began with 114 members with R.H. Pennington, a wholesale fruit dealer, as its first president leading meetings in the St. George Hotel, which was located at the corner of S.E. First and Locust streets.
Since then, meetings of the Rotary Club of Evansville have moved locations five times — first from the St. George Hotel, which was built in 1874 but razed in 1915 to make way for the construction of the McCurdy Hotel at the same site. Meetings were held in the Pompeian Room on the ground floor of the hotel, while special meetings took place in the Rose Room on the top floor. During the next 100 years, the club met at Hadi Shrine, the Executive Inn, Memorial Coliseum, and finally at the Tropicana Executive Conference Center where meetings are held today with its more than 240 members.
In an article in the Evansville Courier dated April 11, 1915, a member of Rotary was described as “coming to his meeting with a big broad grin on his face, expecting to have and to help others have a genuine good time, and goes away happier, and better prepared to withstand the worries and cares of business life.” The original motto of Rotary International was: “He profits most who serves best.”
“Service Above Self” later replaced the original motto in the 1960s. And that’s exactly what the Rotary Club of Evansville has been determined to live up to.
The Rotary Foundation of Evansville Inc. was formed in 1990 and is the charitable arm, which funds local educational and service projects.
“We give our money to schools through grants and services projects,” Berger says. “Recently we created the North Woods trails, which is a full trail system, used by people of all ages. We did the Rotary Youth Fitness Center at the YMCA of Southwestern Indiana, a fitness center with smaller equipment for kids, the Howell Wetlands Project … We renovated the women’s restrooms at the Old Coliseum — it was not our finest service project, but somebody had to do it.”
Rotary did not overlook its obligation to the youth of the community. It provided the funds to construct and maintain the “Monkey Ship,” one of the oldest structures at Mesker Park Zoo in the summer of 1933. Twenty rhesus macaques or Nazuri monkeys were added to the concrete structure, which was a reasonably accurate replica of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria at one-third scale surrounded by water.
During the holiday season, a special meeting and program was provided for the children of the members.
The club sponsored a special lunch honoring all of the scholars from the city’s high school, who posted a 3.0 grade point average over the preceding two semesters. The program began in 1965, and discontinued in the early 1980s. The club also awarded several district Rotary Foundation Fellowships to students at the University of Evansville and University of Southern Indiana for overseas study for one year.
Membership in Rotary is based upon one’s business or professional classification. There could be only one classification given for a multi-business or professional organization. Over the ensuing years, some fairly detailed classifications were created to allow a person to become a member. For examples, “Sand and Gravel” was the classification for J.W. Bedford, who owned Bedford Nugent Sand and Gravel Company. “Awnings and Tents” was created for John J. Daus, whose father founded Anchor Industries, Inc.
Until May 1987, membership also was restricted to men only. The Supreme Court ruled in a 7-to-0 decision that states may outlaw such discrimination by Rotary Clubs. That same year, the Rotary Club of Evansville’s Board of Directors took immediate action and admitted two women into its membership on the same day — Jan Davies, then and current CEO of the Girl Scouts of Southwestern Indiana, and Carolyn Georgette, the then-Vice President of the Indiana Bell Telephone Company, who is now deceased.
Davies, the first member inducted, says she’s heard “through folklore” that a coin flip decided which of the two women would be admitted first. The flip of the coin went to Davies, who has been a Rotary member since.
As president of the Junior League of Evansville and CEO of the Girl Scouts, Davies found herself being recruited into Rotary after the Supreme Court decision.
“I think the older members were more uncomfortable than the younger members,” says Davis of being a woman entering a men’s club. “I don’t think that it was a negative feel, yet more of an uncomfortableness. At any point when there is radical change with something, not everybody is very happy about that, but I always felt that everyone was very positive.”
Two weeks later, Margaret Blair, who was the CEO of Research Systems, Inc., joined. In 1996, Georgette became the first female president of the club. Fellow female, Pepper Mulherin, is the current President-Elect and the AT&T Director of External Affairs for Southern Indiana.
It’s these changes and the ability to adapt that Berger says the club is constantly striving toward.
“There is a lot of tradition, but also a need for growth,” Berger says. “We have to change and attract a new and younger generation. The biggest struggle is getting younger members to join. The average age used to be 35-37 and now it is 20 years older.”
One of the ways Rotary is working on attracting younger members to the club is to first introduce them to Rotaract, an organization for young professionals ages 21-35 in the Evansville community.
Rotaract meets on the second Thursday of each month at 11:30 a.m. on the 15th floor of the Fifth Third Bank in Downtown Evansville. Yearly dues are $170, which covers lunch and membership.
“For someone who is 30 years old and who is trying to get in the business, and to sit and have lunch with the president of USI, to have the opportunity to sit and socialize and network with them, it is worth the invest of their time and resources to come,” Berger says.
(Harry Lukens, Rotary Club of Evansville Historian, contributed to this story.)
For more information about the Rotary Club of Evansville, contact 812-962-4687 or visit evansvillerotary.com.