Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Lexington Rotary Club celebrates 100 years by bucking national trend

Members of UK's Rodeo Team brought proclamations of congratulations Friday as Mayor Jim Gray and Rep. Andy Barr, at podium, marked the Lexington Rotarians' 100th anniversary celebration.
Members of UK's Rodeo Team brought proclamations of congratulations Friday as Mayor Jim Gray and Rep. Andy Barr, at podium, marked the Lexington Rotarians' 100th anniversary celebration.

Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary and other community service clubs are an endangered species in modern America. Membership has been plummeting for decades. It's enough to make an Optimist pessimistic.

Then there is the Rotary Club of Lexington. It is the 21st largest of Rotary International's 34,000 clubs worldwide. Each Thursday at noon, most of the club's 344 members show up for the lunch meeting at Fasig-Tipton.

What makes Lexington Rotary work is not so much size, but effectiveness. It is not the lunch meetings, but the countless hours of public service the rest of the week.

For a century, this club has managed to create the right mix of volunteerism, business networking and inclusiveness that has made many of Lexington's most influential leaders want to belong. Once there, they get things done.

"Rotary is often thought of as an old white male club," said President Mary Beth Wright. "This one has a 36-year-old female president this year. It's a great group of people who have a great calling."

Wright and several past presidents presided over the club's 100th anniversary celebration at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion Friday night that included Mayor Jim Gray and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr reading congratulatory messages.

Those proclamations were brought into the room on horseback by members of the University of Kentucky's Rodeo Team. It was a nod to the club's newest annual fundraiser, a sanctioned rodeo competition in June at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The club has raised the equivalent of millions of dollars for community and international service projects. Many of those have been big and ambitious, thanks to a philosophy of leadership continuity that makes multi-year projects possible.

"This club, more than any other civic organization, has had strong leadership," said entrepreneur Jim Host, a past president and member since 1972. "It's not just a luncheon club. It's what are we doing different? This year, we started a rodeo."

The rodeo and other fundraisers, including Dancing with the Lexington Stars, raise money for charity projects and an endowment that since 1978 has funded many local non-profits.

The club's biggest cause is Surgery on Sunday, a non-profit group founded in 2005 by Dr. Andrew Moore. Local medical professionals donate their time and talents to perform outpatient surgery for low-income people who don't have health insurance and aren't eligible for government insurance. Rotary provides about one-third of the organization's funding, for about 1,000 surgeries a year.

A decade ago, Rotary led creation of the Toyota Bluegrass Miracle League, a baseball league that serves more than 100 handicapped children and adults. The $750,000 project included a specially designed athletic field at Shillito Park.

"Why we can raise that kind of money is the credibility of this club," said Darrell Ishmael, a former president. "The influence of this club makes a huge difference in this community."

The Lexington club was the 182nd to join Rotary, which began as a businessman's networking group in Chicago in 1905.

The Lexington club's first black member was admitted in 1983. Women have been members since 1988, after the U.S. Supreme Court forced the national Rotary to change its men-only policy. The Lexington club now has more than 50 women members, and three have been president.

The Lexington Rotary has always focused on helping youth, with scholarships, winter coats, Santa gifts and international exchange programs. The club was a major force behind creating Cardinal Hill Hospital, which was originally for handicapped children.

In the 1920s, the club bought a Woodford County camp that served area Boy Scouts until the larger McKee Boy Scout Reservation opened near Mount Sterling in 1960. Rotary just took over management of the annual "Brave the Blue" Boy Scout fundraiser, where donors get to rappel 410 feet down the glass walls of Lexington's tallest building.

At times, the Lexington Rotary has been an influential voice on community issues. Most notably, it began pushing for merger of Lexington and Fayette County governments more than three decades before voters approved it in 1973.

As they celebrated a century and looked forward to the future, Lexington Rotarians said their most important goal is maintaining the special chemistry that has made their club a vital force for good in the community.

"Everyone pitches in, and not just as a leader," said Virginia Carter, a member since 2001 and retired executive director of the Kentucky Humanities Council. "Even though everyone here is a leader."