One hundred years ago, give or take a month, the Columbia Rotary Club – the largest and oldest service club in the capital city – had its first meeting.
Similar Rotary clubs had formed a few months earlier in Greenville and Charleston, and the Columbia founders weren’t about to be left behind.
At that time, in 1916, Rotary was only 11 years old, having been created by four men in Chicago in 1905 to be a regular gathering where diverse professionals interested in improving themselves and their communities could exchange ideas and form friendships.
Over the years, Rotary International, as it is now known as, has grown to today’s 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries and geographical areas. Members traveling anywhere in the nation or world are always welcome to join fellow Rotarians in their weekly meal.
Among Columbia’s 18 charter members were The State newspaper sports editor Brian Bell, cotton broker Joseph Walker, architect George Lafaye, Dr. Julius Taylor, drugstore owner Emmet Wingfield and Fred Williams, superintendent of the S.C. State Hospital for the Insane.
Other charter members’ names also may be familiar to Columbians of today, including lawyer Douglas McKay, sporting goods president Samuel McMaster, insurance company president Bruce Ravenel and Sylvan Brothers jewelers’ partner Gustaf Sylvan.
History does not record what those members had for for their first lunch, but Rotary lore has it that many thought the price – 60 cents – was way too high.
“They bit the bullet and paid 60 cents,” said Roger Stroup, a current-day Rotarian who is the club’s unofficial historian. Stroup is scheduled to give a presentation Friday on the group’s history.
Nowadays, the men and women who are members of the Columbia Rotary pay $14 for their weekly lunch.
Instead of 18 members, the club now has more than 250 and is one of the largest in South Carolina.
Although regular meals together (mostly lunch and breakfast) are a trademark of Rotary Clubs worldwide, Columbia’s Rotary is far more than an eating and meeting club.
Then, as now, the club is marked by:
▪ Regular visiting speakers.
▪ Service projects to help individuals and group. Rotarians, whose motto is “service above self,” participate in some projects and fund others by members donations.
▪ The Rotary Four Way Test, and encouraging members to live by it: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Rotary’s regular speakers are the highlight for many.
Over the years, they’ve included nationally known figures, newsmakers and anyone doing interesting things willing to share their experiences. In the 1920s, one speaker told members about his trip to Yellowstone Park. In that pre-commercial airplane time, going to Yellowstone was rare.
In 1923, then-famous revivalist Billy Sunday spoke at a Rotary meal. In 1949, the Rev. Billy Graham spoke. In the modern era, politicians have been regular fare. Former U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., and Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., were frequent guests. Current U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham have both spoken, as well as Gov. Nikki Haley and likely governor-to-be, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster.
Law enforcement types have spoken, from Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, to 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson, to former S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal.
The Columbia club’s service projects are many.
Right after its founding, club members played a role in establishing Fort Jackson and its members have worked to keep the fort open. In 1921, its members pledged $6,000 to support the local Boy Scouts for three years. That was its first major fund-raising drive. In the 1920s and 1930s, the club took hundreds of low-income children to the S.C. State Fair. Members made joint public statements on things like the need for better roads.
Today, club members every year fund a variety of local, national and international projects, from Alzhiemer’s research, to polio eradication, to funding college scholarships. Members ring Salvation Army bells each Christmas.
There have been changes to the Columbia Rotary through the years.
When it was founded, there were no women or African-American members.
At that time, women couldn’t vote and were barely represented in the professions, except for teaching. And blacks in the South and in many parts of the country lived in a rigid and oppressive system of segregation.
But as the club grew internationally, it quickly dropped a ban in the 1920s on having race as a qualification for membership. The Columbia Rotary most likely began admitting African-Americans in the 1970s or 1980s, although no records on that were immediately available.
But it took a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1987 to force the all-male Rotary Clubs in the United States to admit women. The high court’s thinking was, while the Rotary was a semi-private club, its many endeavors in the public areas qualified it to be considered a public entity that could not discriminate against women.
The next year, 1988, the Columbia Rotary Club admitted women.
Some older male members of the club were so incensed they resigned.
But unofficial historian Stroup said of the action, “Smartest thing we’ve ever done.”
Material in this story was researched by Roger Stroup, former director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, and prepared for publication by The State’s John Monk. Both are members of the Columbia Rotary.