Several historic Rotary ID buttons with the names of many well-known Bellows Falls citizens of past years.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
Several historic Rotary ID buttons with the names of many well-known Bellows Falls citizens of past years.

Bellows Falls Rotary celebrates its 100th anniversary

Members of the international service club chapter highlight their service to community, honoring the past and looking to the future as they seek new members

BELLOWS FALLS — The Bellows Falls Rotary Club is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, having been chartered on Nov. 9, 1923. The community service organization has included many of the community's leading business people during its century-long history and has been involved with numerous projects to benefit the local region.

Rotary's motto is "Service Above Self." Its main focus has been to fight disease, provide clean water and sanitation, support women and children, promote local economies, and support environmental protection.

The organization has a Vermont connection, as the founder, Paul Harris, grew up in Wallingford, went to school there, and is a graduate of the University of Vermont.

Bill Stevens, a financial advisor with the Edward Jones office in Bellows Falls, is a past Rotary president and is involved with Rotary at the district level. He said that the Bellows Falls chapter when it was founded was sponsored by the Claremont, New Hampshire club.

Membership has gone up and down over the years, he said, with participation much larger than its current 20 members at various times in its history.

In its first 50 years, the chapter quietly sponsored and completed over $37,000 worth of community projects by 1973.

"Our main focus is service to the community, " Stevens said, "both hands-on work and raising money for projects."

Among the many recent Rotary efforts listed by Stevens are projects that have benefited the Our Place Drop In Center, the Parks Place Community Center, the Saxtons River Recreation Area, and the Rockingham Free Public Library.

"We provide the labor and the money," he said. "For example, we did a kitchen renovation, [an] access ramp, and painting at Parks Place, and put in new flooring at Our Place."

Rotary's history

Rotary is an international organization found in more than 200 countries, Stevens explained, with more than 1.4 million members in 46,000 clubs.

It was started in Chicago in 1905 as a social club for businessmen, but it spread rapidly following World War I as it developed into a service organization. In keeping with its focus on clean water and sanitation, one of its first projects was putting public toilets on the streets of Chicago.

Though it had a female contingent known as the "Rotary Anns," and the Inner Circle Club was a version of Rotary for women, the Rotary was a men's-only organization for about 65 years. In 1976, a Rotary Club in Duarte, California admitted three women members and, when it refused to remove them, found its club charter revoked in 1978.

The club sued the organization for discrimination, and Rotary International appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, losing the case in 1987.

After that ruling, Rotary removed the gender requirements for membership, and today many women have leadership roles in the organization.

"Rotary has been inclusive of women," said Marty Gallagher, a Rotary member since 2016 and a recent past Bellows Falls chapter president. "A lot of women now have leadership roles in a lot of clubs. There are no barriers to that."

A place to get things done

Several members echoed Gallagher's reasons for getting involved in Rotary.

"I liked the idea of doing good work in the community, in a club that has connections to a bigger community," she said. "This is an international group. There is power behind it."

Current President David Stern has been involved with the local Rotary for a decade. He said he enjoys the group and the community, and he added that he loves "how it puts a structure in my life" that helps him "put some care around" and connects him with a lot of other people.

"Networking creates opportunities for connections," he said, which is important to Stern as the director of The Wild Goose Players, a local theater group. "Lots of times I have no idea how to help, and this gives me a way."

The major flooding this past July was an example, he said.

"Through Rotary, we were able to give direct help to people in less than a week," Stern said. "It gives you a better place to put your energy than you might have otherwise."

Sam Howard, the Rockingham library's children's and youth services librarian for the past 23 years, has been a Rotary member for a year. She said she was invited to a meeting, liked what she saw, and decided to become a member.

"I wanted to be able to do things and be part of a social group like this," she said. "I can use my skills. Rotary has come a long way, and not just by including women. I feel that they support my values. Their literacy program is huge to me, and I support that."

Howard said that she felt it was a "really nice group," and a place where she feels she can put her energy to good effect.

"I'm really glad I joined them," she said.

Gallagher said she liked the combination of fellowship with like-minded people and community service. Rotary strives to be non-denominational and not politically affiliated. Stevens said that even in today's highly polarized political culture in the U.S., Rotary Clubs do a good job maintaining that ideal.

"Members work to keep politics out," Stevens said. "Some clubs have bigger problems with it, but most of them do a very good job of staying above the fray."

"If you want to go do things in the community," said Gallagher, "Rotary gives you a way to do these good things."

That can be on an international level, or very local. The Bellows Falls club has funded washing machines and chickens for a school for autistic children in Kenya, both of which became revenue streams for the school.

Or it can be as local as replacing rotted benches at the Saxtons River Recreation Area or in front of the Rockingham Free Public Library, or building an outdoor shelter where Compass School students could wait for the bus shielded from the weather.

"I think there is a general misconception that Rotary is older businessmen that sit and have breakfast together," Gallagher said. "But it's really about the mindset of doing good works for your community with like-minded people."

Stern described it as members seeing a need in the community, then working together to address it.

Community events drive fundraising

In addition to funding projects, the Bellows Falls Rotary raises money for scholarships. Each year, the chapter gives out $3,500 in the form of four scholarships to Bellows Falls Union High School graduates. Both the financial needs and the accomplishments of the students are taken into consideration.

The Rotary funds a Free to Read literacy project, where they give a bag of seven books to fourth-grade students. The local Rotary district that comprises the Bellows Falls group contributed a sizable grant for the Parks Place diaper drive, which provides diapers free to families who need them.

Earlier this year, Rotary was one of the sponsors for the inaugural Bellows Falls Festival, a day-long music event at the Waypoint Center. Covid ended a long-running and popular fundraising yearly Rotary penny sale.

Rotary also sponsors a community dinner around the holidays, a holiday movie at the Bellows Falls Opera House, and a holiday Parade of Lights around the village, and the club works with the Wild Goose Players to present the Holly Jolly Bellows Follies fundraising event.

Rotary's future

Stern said that the local group has changed, with older members moving on or dying, and new ones coming in.

"Some of the formalities have faded," he said, "but, to me, the mission has continued to progress."

Stern said he wants to do his part during his time as president to "keep the ball rolling." He noted that the chapter would like more members and seeks to grow.

Rotary meets Thursday mornings for breakfast at Cafe Loco in Westminster. There is a process for gaining membership, but "most anyone can join," Stevens said.

To that end, the Bellows Falls Rotary has launched a "100 Acts of Service" project to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Doing things quietly and without fanfare has been a Rotary theme since it started. Gallagher noted that the group has become more public about its projects, so community members can both see what it does and perhaps be inspired to join.

"If you want to do things in the community," she said, "Rotary gives you a way to do good things. If your interests are local or global, this gives you a resource to get things done."

Gallagher and community FACT-TV's Mike Smith are creating a half-hour film exploring the local chapter, its history, and its accomplishments. A 10-minute version is scheduled to be shown publicly in December.

"Membership and sustaining the mission are my focus," Stern said, adding that the club has had "dynamic, strong leadership for me to work from."

"Rotary has grown to be more diverse, egalitarian, and forward thinking," he said. "I want to continue that."

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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