Maybe Sid Brooks envisioned the century of good works that would follow.
Maybe he had some inkling that generations of business and industry captains would flock to the unassuming little civic club he began with a few friends in Little Rock on the steamy night of July 6, 1913.
After all, Brooks could have named his small association of local businessmen anything he wanted and organized it any way he saw fit, but at the urging of a friend he chose to put his club under the new, young Rotary Club umbrella.
Certainly Brooks, a Memphis native and Harvard graduate, saw value in the Rotary template for his adopted town of Little Rock. Founded in Chicago by Paul Harris in 1905, Rotary had already expanded into several cities and in 1910 the National Association of Rotary Clubs had held its first convention.
Maybe Brooks saw a Little Rock chapter as a platform to do good works for the city, the state, perhaps the nation and maybe even the world.
Then again, maybe it was a simple case of lonesomeness that led Brooks to convene that first meeting of five business acquaintances in Little Rock.
Whatever his motivation, Brooks — founder, first president and longtime secretary — showed himself to be a stickler for procedure, protocols and thorough record keeping. On Jan. 1, 1914, thanks to Brooks’ initial efforts, the International Association of Rotary Clubs granted its 99th charter to the Little Rock club, which adopted the name Rotary 99.
In the ensuing 100 years Rotary 99, the oldest and largest civic service organization in Arkansas, has grown to more than 450 members, with a scope and reach far beyond the walls of Brooks’ office, site of the first, exploratory get-together.
“We can reach so many people from this little platform of Little Rock, Arkansas,” says Rotary 99 President Sharon Tallach Vogelpohl.
As it celebrates its 100th anniversary, Rotary 99 ranks as the nation’s 14th largest Rotary Club, a status enhanced by the fact that Rotary International has 34,000 clubs representing 1.2 million Rotarians around the world.
“It gives so many diverse opportunities to serve,” former President Gary Parrish says.
It was Arkansas Savings Bank President J.S. Pollock, one of the first friends Brooks made upon arriving in Little Rock in 1911, who urged Brooks to start a Rotary chapter to help him make acquaintances in his new town.
Pollock had a nephew who was a member of the Los Angeles Rotary Club, and he sent his uncle literature that Pollock passed on to Brooks.
From the first, after-hours meeting in Brooks’ office, the group reflected Rotary’s business class makeup. There were Brooks, who had come to Little Rock to open an advertising agency; Pollock the banker; Brooks’ good friend August Engel, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat; Corbin Duncan, manager of Brooks’ office building (now know as the Boyle Building); A.M. Carroll, local manager of the Remington Typewriter Company; and E. Star Thompson, who ran Brooks’ favorite cigar store.
In the few months between the first meeting and the time it received its charter, Rotary 99’s rolls swelled to 36 and would exceed 100 just a few years later. And it just kept growing.
“In Arkansas a lot of the time we’re viewed as the smalls state or maybe we’re not No. 1 in this or that,” says Greg Hatcher, Rotary 99 president for 2004-2005. “But when it comes to Rotary we’re in the top 30 Rotary clubs out of the more than 30,000 internationally.”
Though Vogelpohl fights the misconception that clubs like Rotary are “lunch clubs for old dudes,” it is traditional that Rotary holds its weekly meetings at lunchtime.
Rotary’s name comes from the early practice of rotating meetings among members’ offices and Rotary 99, which met initially on Thursday evenings, soon shifted to a noon gathering on Tuesdays.
Former President Carl Rosenbaum, 79, recalls joining Rotary in the mid-1960s and quickly seeing for himself that the organization was about much more than lunch.
“I got in Rotary in 1965,” says Rosenbaum, who was president in 1983-84. “I was pretty young. Not only did it help me in business, it helped me meet people I wouldn’t normally have contact with.”
Almost from the outset the Rotarians insisted on having speakers. At first the club asked members to talk about the ins and outs of their local businesses.
Topics ranged from the “The Trials and Tribulations of the Laundry Business” to “The Uses of the Burroughs Adding Machine.”
In its first year the club also amended its by-laws to provide that it be politically neutral and abstain from partisan discussions of politics and religion. It’s a practice that could benefit many a family gathering, but the by-law hasn’t kept the club from inviting political heavyweights as part of a speaker lineup that has become more and more impressive as Rotary has grown.
Rotary 99 has welcomed notables like former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Wesley Clark, the former U.S. Army General, NATO commander and presidential candidate.
“We pride ourselves on being a really great podium,” Vogelpohl says.
Female guests had been welcome for years, but Rotary International did not admit women as members until 1987, when the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-0 decision that states could outlaw the exclusion of women from membership in private clubs.
Rotary International then issued a policy statement that allowed qualified women as members. In 1988, Rotary 99 invited a group of nine women, including women’s apparel retailer Barbara Graves, to join.
“Going back to how busy I was and what else I was doing I had to think about it,” says Graves, owner of Barbara Graves Intimate Apparel. “As a retailer, a lunchtime commitment is a big commitment.”
Graves nevertheless stressed that Rotary 99 membership has been more than worth her while, and not just because of the business connections.
“Rotary has always been about friendships and programs,” she says.
The new rules became official with a Rotary International constitution change in 1989. To Graves, the sudden presence of women at the meetings didn’t seem so sudden.
“There were always women present. Wives or other guests, so it didn’t dawn on me that this was a huge deal,” says Graves, who admits to being surprised by the attention directed at her and the other women, who were inducted before a packed house.
“I’m sure there was some controversy but it wasn’t like women couldn’t step through the door,” Graves says.
Graves spent 10 years serving as a Rotary 99 board member and sergeant at arms before she was elected the club’s first female president for the 1998-1999 term. She says Rotary 99 had quickly moved to make women office holders prior to her becoming president.
“We were fast tracked,” Graves says.
Vogelpohl is the fifth female president since the rules changed.
“I think that speaks really well to how inclusive and steadfast the organization has been,” Graves says.
“I think it was the salvation of Rotary, because women are very active in Rotary,” Rosenbaum adds.
99 at 100
On its own or in partnership with other organizations, Rotary 99 has impacted thousands of lives and gives heft to the Rotary motto “Service above self.”
The local service projects date to Rotary 99’s early years, when each member was assessed a $3 fee that went toward shoes, stockings, candy and fruit for 108 needy children.
“It’s instilled in every Rotarian,” Rosenbaum says. “It’s an opportunity to serve.”
During Rosenbaum’s tenure, the club completed five years of work putting together the Rotary 99 Foundation, which raised $5,000 for local projects in 1984, a figure that has grown to more than $750,000.
The nonprofit, 501(c)(3) is in the process of raising $2 million this year and next. The money will give Rotary 99 a head start on the next century of good works, Hatcher says.
Some of Rotary 99’s flagship programs, which the club would like to expand and replicate in its second century, include Farmers Feed the Children; Hurricane Katrina relief; the Dictionary/Literacy Project, which provides dictionaries to local third-graders; and the Miracle League field built for $500,000 at the Junior Deputy baseball complex to assist developmentally disabled children.
Sometimes projects are planned, sometimes they find you, says French Hill, who was president in 2005-2006 and helped lead Rotary 99’s Katrina relief project. When the devastating storm hit in 2005, Rotary 99 reached out to its counterparts in southern Louisiana, partnered with the club in Covington and repaired or rebuilt close to 60 homes in the community of Lacombe, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
“It was an exciting, demanding and emotional project and it dominated my year,” says Hill, who adds that the relief project applied for and was granted a six-figure sum from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.
“It was really a way to see the power of Rotary Club membership on a major scale,” Hill says.
Hatcher notes that most Rotary projects, no matter who is president when they are completed, are usually the result of a group effort ranging over a few presidential terms. It isn’t about which president gets credit, says Hatcher, who was in office when the Miracle League field project got underway. What matters is who benefits.
“What I like about the Miracle Field is your great lessons in life are learned when you’re doing something where you have to sacrifice, work with others and do something competitive,” says Hatcher. “We’ve given those who don’t normally get a chance to be in that situation to be in that situation and it helps them later in life.”
Farmers Feed the Children has especially been a model for Rotary International, Vogelpohl says. Begun in 2000 under the leadership of then-Rotary 99 president Parrish, the program aligned with Heifer International to deliver cattle to farmers in Romania.
Initially the project was planned as a modest milk and poultry distribution effort. A number of financial, regulatory and logistical difficulties arose, and — while Parrish says Heifer’s help was indispensible — the Rotary 99 team persevered partly because its personnel included a PhD in agriculture, an accountant, a seasoned photojournalist, an attorney, a logistics specialist and a female entrepreneur to help with gender specific program issues.
“We’ve got a strong group of leaders and a very diverse group of leaders,” Parrish says. “And I think that’s one of our assets.”
The project grew and prospered beyond its original scope, leaving behind working farms and distribution/pasteurization plants that had not previously existed.
Rotary 99 is also involved in a protracted fight to eradicate polio internationally through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a partnership of the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Rotary International, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It is an ongoing effort Graves recalls as one of the high points of her presidency.
“We were still heavily involved as a club on the local, state and national level to eradicate polio in our lifetime in other countries,” she says.
As part of its 100th anniversary celebration, Rotary 99 has been involved in a series of 18 monthly events that will carry into next summer. Characteristically, the events center around some form of service like the Founders’ Day celebration planned for January.
The program of course features a speaker — in this case it is Gov. Mike Beebe — while also focusing on food collections for local agencies to help school children dealing with food insecurity.
Vogelpohl says other planned programs are still being kept under wraps but added that Rotary 99 will have plenty to do in the immediate future and over the long term.
“You could be involved year after year and do something different every time,” she says.
Vogelpohl notes that most of Rotary’s leaders around the world fall in the “55-plus” age group and wants to see the centennial celebration used partly as a platform from which to recruit Rotary 99’s next generation.
“That’s going to be a big focus moving forward,” she says.
Graves says she hopes to see polio finally eradicated, as would Rosenbaum. Once that’s done, Rosenbaum says, he would like to see the club zero in on world hunger and malnutrition, combating illiteracy maybe or fighting malaria.
Hill, Parrish and Hatcher also emphasize the youth theme, whether that be in finding the next generation of Rotarians, fighting hunger or improving literacy and educational opportunities.
“That one kid out there that could cure cancer may be the one kid that is the most disadvantaged youth,” Parrish says. “And that may be the one child we’re able to help.”
Rosenbaum is sure that whatever it is Rotary tackles, it will be worthwhile and accomplished in the spirit of shared mission and lifelong friendship established by men like Brooks and Harris in those little offices a century ago.
“We’ll have a project Rotarians will get behind because we’ve always been faithful in naming a project and fulfilling it,” he says.
|Rotary 99 Presidents*|
|1974-1975||Dr. T. Robert Johnson|
|1977-1978||Ted L. Snider|
|1981-1982||Dr. James J. Pappas|
|1983-1984||Carl S. Rosenbaum|
|1984-1985||Arthur J. Pfeifer|
|1987-1988||Dr. H. A. Ted Bailey Jr.|
|1989-1990||James R. Moseley Jr.|
|1992-1993||Robert L. Lanford|
|1993-1994||Byron M. Eiseman Jr.|
|1997-1998||Barbara M. Graves|
|1998-1999||David F. Menz|
|2013-2014||Sharon Tallach Vogelpohl|