History of Rotary Club of Roanoke
Over One Hundred Years of Service and Achievements
The City of Roanoke was only 32 years old when the Rotary Club of Roanoke was born in 1914. Those were boom years. Aside from politics, activity centered on business and industry, there was little time for attention to civic programs and public service.
But on February 20, 1914, local businessman Eph Spencer called a dozen of his acquaintances to meet in the director’s room of the former National Exchange Bank. At that meeting, Dave Sites (Jim White’s grandfather-in-law) was elected temporary chairman. They voted to get information from the Chicago headquarters of Rotary and the newly formed club in Richmond about organizing a Rotary Club here. The first meeting was held on April 14, 1914, in the Japanese Tea Room over the old American Theater; The officers, elected by the 25 charter members, were D.P. “David” Sites, owner of a stationary business, president; C. Francis Cocke, banker, secretary; and E.B. Spencer, also a banker, treasurer. Membership grew as the idea spread. At first there were few guidelines and each club devised its own program, establishing its own aims within the Rotary plan.
Dave Sites and another Rotarian, John Wood, attended International Convention at Houston, Texas, where they had to roll a baby carriage down the streets of Houston to symbolize the new baby club in Rotary.
Rotary Club of Roanoke has the distinction of being the 123rd club to join Rotary International.
During those early days of the Rotary Club of Roanoke, there was an atmosphere of cheer and friendliness that helped make the club what it is today. At one meeting in the old Ponce DeLeon Hotel, Rotarian Jim Lee arose and called the name, nickname and classification of every member present. The word “Mister” was absolutely taboo in Rotary, then as now, and its use was the signal for a 25 cent fine, collected on the spot. Sometimes late-comers were fined a quarter, too. A stunt was performed at each meeting by the Stunt Committee. The club met in rotation at the places of business of various members. On one such occasion, a meeting was held in a member’s barn. Hugh Trout had just finished a large concrete barn and the Rotary Club of Roanoke christened it. Another meeting was held in the Crumpacker Orchard. I am sure those meetings must have been full of good cheer!
It’s amusing to note that in its second year (1915), the club staged Rotary Circus under the direction of Joe A. Turner, Hollins College treasurer, in the famed Academy of Music on Salem Avenue. The place was packed to the “peanut gallery” and the result was a substantial sum raised for charity. There followed many other sponsored events, including an old-time fiddlers convention.
The next few years were devoted to Rotary education and a better understanding of the aims and purpose of Rotary. Succeeding years up to the present have been a mixture of fellowship and service projects.
Not until 1950 was this territory split between new clubs in Salem and Williamson Road (North Roanoke), the latter area having been annexed by the City the previous year. Today there are four Rotary clubs in the Valley, with the addition of the Downtown Roanoke and Roanoke Valley clubs.
Our club claims proud parenthood of 11 others: Bristol, Christiansburg-Blacksburg, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Pulaski, Radford, Rocky Mount, Salem, North Roanoke, and the aforementioned Downtown Roanoke and Roanoke Valley.
For most of its existence, the club was an evening one and met at Hotel Roanoke at 6:15 PM; but in 2010, the club became a daytime one and met briefly at the 202 Restaurant. The club has now found a home at the Roanoke Country Club. From the beginning, the club has met twice a month, usually on the second and fourth Thursday. In this, it remains unique under a “grandfather” provision of the 1919 decision of Rotary International to require weekly meetings.
Up through 1988, our club, like all others, was strictly male. However as a result of a federal court ruling compelling Jaycees to admit women to membership, civic clubs nationwide have fallen in line. It was a step long overdue. Today women are equal partners in the Rotary Club of Roanoke with many occupying positions of responsibility including a past and future president.
In the past century, we estimate that well over 1,000 men and women have been members of the Rotary Club of Roanoke. It would be next to impossible to list in detail the individuals serving as chairmen, board members, executives and directors of countless community organizations. Rotarians have headed the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Girl Scouts, the March of Dimes, United Way, Camp Easter Seal, the Y.M.C.A, the Bradley Free Clinic and Junior Achievement in addition to the City Council, the School Board, the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals and others too numerous to mention.
During the same time, the club has provided a district governor in most every decade. One of them, Ed R. Johnson, was president of Rotary International in 1935-36. The others have been D.P. Sites, Jos. A. Turner, Dr. Charles J. Smith, Clem D. Johnston, Glover M. Trent and William R. Reid. In addition, one of our members, Byron W. John, served as governor of the 755th District.
The point is that Rotarians for over 100 years have lived up to their mottoes: “Service above Self” and “He Profits Most Who Serves Best.”
Service above Self
Probably the most outstanding program over the years was the Student Loan Fund, conceived long before governmental scholarship programs at taxpayer expense. The idea was to create a revolving fund to make loans to deserving young men and women who wanted to go to college. Starting with a mere $300, the fund grew to $25,000 as more gifts were made and loans were repaid at modest interest. For years it was a boast that the fund
never lost a cent. In addition, the club was able to transfer $10,000 to create scholarships at Hollins and Roanoke colleges in honor of Joe Turner and Dr. Charles Smith, then-president of Roanoke College.
One of our outstanding accomplishments came about when the membership voted with the Board of Directors to make the then-“Mercy House” near Salem a continuing project. It was later named “McVitty House” and then “Richfield” (for pioneer Gen. Andrew Lewis’s plantation). Money, material and work were contributed to erect a Rotary building. An infusion of federal funds eventually cancelled much of this effort.
More or less replacing this project was the undertaking in 1982 of ongoing support for the Goodwill Industries of Roanoke Valley, to help furnish employment and aid to the handicapped. Considerable money, repairable clothing, used household furniture and other items have been poured into the project.
Another source of pride is the help extended to Roanoke’s Sister City, Kisumu, in Kenya. Thanks to devoted efforts by Dr. Conrad Stone, the club asked for and received a $164,000 grant from the Rotary Foundation to start a school and clinic. Dr. Stone has made
several trips to Kenya, taking medical equipment and performing services.
“Reach Out Haiti,” a project of District 757, has seen considerable monetary support to this poorest nation of the Western hemisphere. Reid Jones, who headed our club effort, made several trips to the beleaguered island.
One of the great achievements of Rotary International has been the establishment of the Rotary Foundation through Paul Harris Fellowships of $1,000 each. Roanoke Club can point with pride to 23 current recipients of this prestigious award and a total of 170,
including those made in honor of deceased or former members. Altogether that accounts for a total contribution of $69,000 to help spread Rotary’s programs worldwide. Currently, there are eight Benefactors.
The Rotary Foundation organized a continuing project known as “Polio Plus” to help eradicate polio and other diseases capable of immunization, calling on all clubs in Rotary to help worldwide. Our club has responded by giving nearly $62,000, and the fundraising continues.
Our overall contribution to the Rotary Foundation has been $589,815.09.
For the past 25 years, we have continued the tradition of service established by our club leaders.
- The club spearheaded participation in Renew Roanoke with a $27,000 donation.
- The club contributed $7,500 towards the Smith Mountain 4-H Center.
- The club has taken part in the Avoidable Blindness Project for many years.
- Our Rotary Club, with the help of other Rotary clubs in the Valley, with member Larry Ptaschek heading up the project — has raised more than $100,000 to help the Military Families Organization.
- Every year our club provides meals during the holidays for patients of the Bradley Free Clinic, and rings the bell for the Salvation Army.
- The club serves meals at the Rescue Mission and we give Rescue Mission children a chance for horseback riding in the summer.
- We take part in Read America, provide volunteers for Blue Ridge Literacy and participate in many other projects too numerous to mention.
- We also extend our service to many third-world countries. For many years our club has been
interested in providing clean water to those in need. We have built wells in Haiti, India and Ghana. With the help of a matching grant from RI, we built a school and clinic in Kenya.
In the vernacular, Rotary Club of Roanoke “has come a long way” since 1914. What the second centtury will bring only Father Time can tell. We do predict, however, that Rotary Club of Roanoke will still be here and going strong.