CHAMPAIGN ROTARY TURNS 100
By Peter Tomaras
Champaign Rotary Club
Paul Harris and three Chicago friends could never have envisioned that their decision in 1905 to form a fellowship — both for friendship and to support their hometown — would result in world leadership in service to humanity with 1.2 million Rotarians in 35,000 clubs worldwide. Nor could the 24 Champaign business and civic leaders who convened at the Beardsley Hotel in December, 1916, have foreseen that their new Rotary club, chartered the following February, would become one of Rotary International’s most honored clubs.
In May, 1917, a tornado devastated Mattoon, killing 80 and destroying 500 homes. Immediately, the fledgling Champaign Rotary Club mounted a relief train bearing doctors, nurses, policemen, food, blankets, tents, clothing and medical supplies. The train arrived in Mattoon just five hours after the tornado’s strike — the first help to reach the ravaged city. The club would pursue this pattern of community service for another 100 years.
Post-World War I, Champaign Rotary adopted a policy of providing seed money and short-term help to worthy organizations, spreading resources over a wider spectrum of local causes while lending repeated support to select groups. Among many, Champaign Rotary boosted United Way’s forerunners, hospital drives, Boy and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, programs for children and the Salvation Army. Concurrently, Rotarians consistently provided leadership as founders and officers of civic groups.
Post-WWII, to fund major humanitarian programs abroad, Rotary International’s Foundation (RF) launched two key initiatives. One asked each club member to contribute $10 to RF, with recognition to clubs with 100% participation. Of thousands of clubs, Champaign Rotary was the first to 100%. After RI Founder Paul Harris’ death in 1947, RF established Paul Harris Fellowships honoring anyone donating $1,000 to RF. Champaign Rotary boasts more than 500 PH fellows, with many earning the award several times over. During his post-war service as editor of The Fizz, the club’s award-winning weekly bulletin, Dean McCumber coined the term W.G.R.C. to label Champaign Rotary—“partly in humorous hyperbole and partly in pride”—The World’s Greatest Rotary Club. The moniker stuck.
Frank Clark, the club’s founding president, was succeeded by Albert Eisner Sr., who served two years—the only two-term president in the club’s history. A half-century later, Bobby Eisner, Jr. became a third-generation club president and, in 1999, Nina Wanchic Eisner made it four generations of club presidents named Eisner, a record unlikely to be matched. Nina was the second (to Janice Bahr) of six women presidents, and on July 1, Connie Walsh will become the seventh. That Rotary International did not admit women until 1988 demonstrates the immediate impact of women members. Bonnie Kelley broke WGRC’s gender barrier, closely followed by Nancy Martin and Jan Bahr.
WGRC’s membership reached a high of 260 when the county had just three Rotary Clubs; today there are seven clubs, and WGRC membership is 160. Along the way, the club sponsored or co-sponsored 11 of the 50+clubs in District 6490. Seven Champaign Rotarians have served as District 6490 governor, perhaps none more dynamically than Frank D. Keck II, whom the club’s written history, The Story, designated WGRC’s Rotarian of the 1990s. But the most honored of all Champaign Rotarians was the late Arthur J. Skelton. Art, known throughout the district as Mr. Rotary, won every possible award, from the District Hall of Honor to the ultimate prize from Rotary International, the Service Above Self Award. The Story named Art Skelton WGRC’s Rotarian of the 20th Century.”
In 1977, to raise money to build a public pavilion on Rotary Hill at Lake of the Woods Park at the east edge of Mahomet, WGRC initiated a live auction. The successful outcome prompted formation of the club’s tax-free arm, W.G.R.C., Inc., and set the pattern for triennial Action Auctions that have raised more $700,000 for worthy charitable causes. Beneficiaries have included Frances Nelson Health Center, DSC, Boy Scouts, Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, Community Schools Foundation, Crisis Nursery, and CASA.
1978 saw the launch of the Interact Club at Centennial High School. Thanks to dedicated WGRC and school coordinators, in their 20th year Centennial Interactors logged an astounding 3,865 service hours. It was Interact that created Austin’s Day of Service, now embraced by the community at large. Interactors’ impressive service tradition places them among the best of more than 7,000 Interact Clubs worldwide. Recently, WGRC established an EarlyAct Club for 4th- and 5th-graders at Garden Hills Elementary — another District first.
WGRC has been a strong player in RF’s international initiatives to alleviate disease and hunger. In 1987, the RF launched its $120 million PolioPlus program to eradicate polio globally. WGRC was one of nine Rotary clubs tabbed as “Model Clubs” to set a benchmark for others. Assigned a goal of $120,000, project chair Scott Anderson Sr. spearheaded a drive that soared past $200,000. Today, with polio 99.9% eradicated and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lending major funding, thousands of Rotary on-site volunteers continue to administer vaccine to children in remote areas.
WGRC has led numerous matching-grant RF global projects: clean water wells in East Africa, India, Tajikistan and Haiti, and a new library in a town in Uganda. In the 1990s, the club won a $30,000 matching grant from RF to support Operation Rainbow, a project led by Carle Surgeon Michael Goldwasser to perform cleft lip surgery on indigent children in the Philippines. WGRC’s total Rotary Foundation contributions now exceed $750,000, a bright jewel in the club’s Rotary crown.
Today, WGRC’s members lend more time and energy to hands-on projects: reading to children, assembling backpacks for the homeless, improving local park facilities, cleaning Mattis Avenue and the Boneyard, bolstering Habitat for Humanity and the ambitious commitment to replace hundreds of trees in Gifford destroyed by the 2013 tornado.
Throughout its 100 years, Champaign Rotarians have seldom fallen short of their goal: to be the district’s highest-achieving club. The path to this goal was widened in 2001, when Champaign Rotary received a $1,000,000+endowment from the estate of long-time Clifford-Jacobs Chairman Joseph Cannon. This gift empowers WGRC to be a major provider of financial grants to deserving organizations and causes for the foreseeable future.