The Rotary Club of Arlington is only five years away from turning 100, but it’s not your grandfather’s club. It doesn’t fit the old stereotype of a bunch of elderly, suit-and-tie white guys who mainly meet for lunch once a week.
No, it’s not your grandfather’s club … except when it actually is.
Don Mebus’ father Jerry and grandfather Bob Cooke were members. So were Valerie Landry’s grandfather, Leonard Bergstrom, and Mary Tom Curnutt’s grandfather, Tom L. Cravens. Club Secretary Susie McAllister’s grandfather, Sam Wine, was the first president.
But the 12 men who founded the club on June 11, 1923, would be hard put to recognize it now, at least at first glance. The Rotary motto “Service Above Self” rings just as true, but the “selves” have a new look. Skirts, blouses and pantsuits have joined the suits since women were admitted in 1987. There’s even a smattering of jeans, workboots and polo shirts. Demographics have changed. Landry and Mary Tom Curnutt are immediate past president and president-elect, respectively. Current president Joe Way is African-American.
The club maintains the weekly luncheon format, but Rotary International has softened its once stringent attendance policies. Missed meetings can, as always, be made up at other Rotary clubs, many of which meet in evenings or for breakfast. There are even virtual meetings via an “e-club,” and working on a club project can count as a meeting.
“If you go out and do something to make a difference in somebody’s life, that’s important and counts as attendance,” Mebus says. “The whole idea is to be relevant to people who are coming up and could be potential Rotarians. Make it meaningful.”
The club, and Rotary in general, he says, has shifted from a mostly philanthropic organization into “an actual service club. It used to be that when we wanted to do something, we all wrote checks. Now, we’re getting out there, going to Webb Elementary and going to help clean up River Legacy Park.”
The key to recruiting and retaining new members, he says, is to get them involved – physically involved – in club projects. “You make a difference in someone’s life by working directly on a project,” he says. “Once you do that, you get that certain joy and want to do more.”
And there is no lack of projects. The club holds the annual Arlington Heroes Run honoring veterans and first responders, with proceeds going to organizations that support them. It has worked since 2003 to bring safe drinking water to an area of eastern Honduras. A grant from the club’s governing district last year went to help fund the new Downtown Library, and a similar grant this year will seek to help prevent sex trafficking both by purchasing equipment and computer software for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department and holding training events so that ordinary citizens can be vigilant. The club also annually presents awards to the most outstanding male and female sixth-graders in every AISD elementary school.
The foregoing speaks only to major club initiatives. The beauty of the Rotary Club of Arlington, Landry says, is that the number is limited only by the members’ vision and how they communicate their vision to others.
“If you’re really passionate about a project, and it aligns within the six focus areas of Rotary, there are innumerable assets for you to really get people behind it,” she says. “It’s so neat to be able to take an idea to the club and to have people say they want to work on it. All of a sudden, your idea has blossomed into a real cause or event.”
Perhaps nothing captures the scope of the Rotary Club of Arlington more than its partnership with Webb Elementary School begun in 1993. Webb was chosen, club member Peter Scott notes, “because it was the poorest school in the AISD and because the dropout rate was very, very high in that particular area.”
The philanthropic approach to the problem was to create a fund to provide each student who completed the sixth grade at Webb a college scholarship upon graduation from high school, provided certain criteria were met. Scott, who had just moved to Arlington after 11 years as a Rotarian in Cleveland, Ohio, was tapped to head the fundraising. Through personal donations and various events, enough was raised so that 478 students have been awarded scholarships worth $611,343. The fund, Scott says, stands at about $1.4 million.
“What they do for our community is amazing,” Heather Boggs, former student and scholarship recipient, said in a 2012 interview on KXAS-TV. “I’m very thankful and forever in their debt.”
The program drew national attention that same year when the Rotary Club of Arlington was selected as one of 10 “Champions of Change” clubs and was honored at a White House reception.
The scholarship program, Scott says, is only the start of what the club does for Webb’s students. Every fourth-grader receives a dictionary, and club members frequently visit the school, reading to and mentoring the students. Fundraisers are conducted in the school cafeteria. And each year the entire fifth grade and their teachers are offered a four-day outing at the YMCA’s Camp Grady Spruce. “It’s a great experience, a great motivator,” he says, “not only for the kids, but also for us to keep it going.”
He especially remembers one thank-you letter received after the campout. The student wrote ecstatically about being outdoors, learning about animals and science and ended with “… and I didn’t hear a gunshot all week.”
Webb Principal Elena Lopez is appreciative. “The Arlington Rotary Club continues to provide opportunities for our students that they otherwise would not experience,” she says. “Through their generosity our students are not only able to engage in hands-on learning, attending trips such as Camp Grady Spruce, but the idea to attend college becomes a reality with the Rotary Scholarship for every sixth grade student!”
It has been such experiences that have kept members active and helped the club maintain a steady membership. “We’re at 133 right now,” Landry says, “a little lower than what we’ve been in the past, but life happens. People move. Their commitments change outside of Rotary. But we’ll always be there to catch them when they’re ready again.”
Mebus attributes a nationwide decline in service club membership over several decades, to a “shift in the entrepreneurial spirit.” Fewer businesses are home-owned, he notes, and frequent relocations within a corporate structure make it hard to put down roots. But, he and his colleagues take heart in organizations like the Rotary Club of Arlington that are still able to martial that spirit into public service and give their members the same pride in and spirit of community enjoyed by many of their grandfathers.