Originally published on May 29, 2017.
Like most things that have lasted for a century, the Huntington Rotary Club has seen its share of changes.
“It’s really evolved, because it was at one time a good old boys’ club,” says Jim Hoffman, who’s been a Rotarian since 1973.
“It used to be men who didn’t punch the clock, and they had secretaries,” says Mel Ring, whose 57 years of membership makes him the longest-standing Rotarian in Huntington.
There were no women, and there were strict limits on the number of members from any one profession.
“Way back when it was started as a networking club, they didn’t want all the members to be in the same profession,” explains Kay Schwob, who joined in 1996. That was eight years after the formerly all-male organization welcomed its first woman into membership.
“There were people who were against it,” Ring says of the decision to open the ranks to women. “To me, it wasn’t any big thing. That was one of the things that kept Rotary going.”
And as the Huntington Rotary Club celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding, one thing hasn’t changed — the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self,” which local Rotarians have lived out in community projects both at home and across the ocean.
The service aspect is one of the reasons Ring has remained a member so long.
“I think of course, it’s a great organization that does great things in the world,” he says.
“And then it’s habit.”
Ring joined in 1960, just a couple of years after he’d moved to Huntington to take a job with the local radio station, WHLT.
“There were two of us new and we thought we should belong to service clubs,” he says.
Ring stayed with Rotary during his time at the radio station, the 30 years he spent managing the local Sherwin-Williams store, and even after he retired in 1989.
“Unlike many people who leave when they quit working,” he says.
There were none of the original 1917 members left when Ring got involved with Rotary, but he does have fond memories of Herb Zent, who joined Rotary in 1924 — just seven years after the club’s founding — and remained a member until his death in 1974, when he stricken while receiving a 50-year membership award at a Rotary luncheon.
“I always thought he was one of the great men of Huntington,” Ring says of Zent, who made his living as an auto dealer. But it wasn’t Zent’s professional life that made an impression on Ring.
“He was a writer,” Ring says. “He wrote poems for Rotarians on their birthdays … He was my hero.”
There used to be a lot more singing, Ring says, accompanied by a pianist hired by the club. One of the piano players was so deaf, Ring recalls, that she actually finished a song and walked back to her seat while the club was still singing.
While the Huntington Rotary Club was not founded as a fund-raising organization, the club did begin sponsoring the Heritage Days Strawberry Feed during the early 1970s.
“The Strawberry Feed is where we’re the most visible in the community,” Schwob says.
Proceeds from that event help fund the club’s community projects, which have included purchasing school playground equipment and assisting with the launch of the McKenzie’s Hope child advocacy center in Huntington, where members provided sweat equity as well as financial assistance. Since 1992, the club has taken responsibility for keeping a two-mile stretch of U.S.-24 clean.
Rotary also sponsors leadership programs for middle school, high school and college students. Rotarians serve as reading buddies to first-graders at Lincoln Elementary School, giving the students 30 minutes of one-on-one reading time every other week.
The club honors local National Honor Society members and awards scholarships to college-bound students. It provides recognition to the Huntington County 4-H leader of the year and the Huntington County Community School Corporation’s teacher of the year.
Farther afield, the Huntington Rotary Club has played a role in the effort to eradicate polio around the world. That involvement came through E. DeWitt Baker, a Rotary member, Huntington College president and a missionary.
Baker, after hearing a speech by Dr. Jonas Salk at a Rotary International convention in 1980, was moved by the need for the polio vaccine in Sierra Leone, where he had served. Drawing on his experience as a missionary, Baker pushed to start an immunization program in Sierra Leone. That led to the initial inoculation of 2.8 million children in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Senegal.
The overseas projects have also included water towers, wells, financial assistance and funds to build and maintain hospital wards.
The Huntington Rotary Club was presented with Charter Certificate No. 300 on June 1, 1917, and has been going strong ever since. It even produced its own international president, Arthur H. Sapp, the only Hoosier to ever have served as president of Rotary International. His term in the international office came in 1927.
Huntington Rotarians will celebrate their 100th anniversary with a dinner and reception on June 1 at The New Huntington Theater, just across the street from Rotary Centennial Park — which was built with a $125,000 gift from Rotary in celebration of its 100th year and will be dedicated that same evening. The park also includes a Rotary clock donated by Ring in memory of his late wife, Loretta.
The occasion is big enough to merit an official visit from the current Rotary International president, John F. Germ, of Chattanooga, TN. He’ll be welcomed by the current president of the Huntington Rotary Club, Nicole Johnson.
The Huntington Rotary Club is one of more than 33,000 Rotary Clubs in 200 counties, which encompass some 1.2 million members. Rotary International celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005.