Arkansas City’s oldest civic organization turns 100 this year.Rotary Mardi Gras poster

The local Rotary Club is celebrating its centennial anniversary with a Mardi Gras-themed party at the historic Burford Theatre on Feb. 25.

“That’s an astounding lifespan to me and definitely cause for celebration,” said Mendy Pfannenstiel, a Rotary board member leading the celebration effort.

“And because our anniversary is so close to Mardi Gras, it felt like an appropriate theme — a time to revel in our past and future accomplishments and community service.”

A limited number of tickets are available for the event. They can be purchased at the Arkansas City Public Library and Arkansas City Presbyterian Manor.

The V.J. Wilkins Family Center for the Arts at the Burford Theatre is located at 118 S. Summit St.

Rotary Club founded

Rotary in Ark City officially started on March 2, 1917. That’s when 21 charter members elected a president at the former Fifth Avenue Hotel.

The Arkansas City group became Club No. 283 of the larger Rotary International organization, which began in 1905 in Chicago.

Local club members were concerned with food production during World War I, so one their first actions was to provide seed for planting 10 acres of potatoes.

Also in those early years, members asked the local board of education to help to create athletic fields south of Paris Park, and they also asked city commissioners to let children ride bikes and roller-skate on the sidewalks.

Back then, it was men only, and spouses could become “Rotary Anns.” The club held its first “ladies’ night” on Dec. 27, 1917, in Newman’s Tea Room.

That tradition lasted until 1933, when, according to club minutes, it was reported that “…most of the Rotary Anns seems to feel that the club was a men’s club and should be kept as such.”

Early club history

Early club members liked to have fun. They held spelling bees and then bridge tournaments, and sponsored a twilight league or youth baseball team starting in the early 1920s. They held golf tournaments and had a bowling team.

Two Ark City members attended the first organizational meeting for the Winfield club in 1918. Winfield Rotary celebrates its centennial next year.

During the Great Depression, the Ark City club lowered its dues by 25 percent. Later, it “noted with sadness the end of the eleven Austrian Clubs as Hitler’s reign began to reach out and tighten its grip,” according to a history of the club written at the turn of the last century.

Nine Rotarians were called away during World War II and placed on “temporary honorary membership” status.

By 1955, the club had reached 95 members. It peaked in the 1960s with more than 100 active members.

The power of Rotary

Steve Ross joined the club in the late 1960s as a young businessman trying to establish himself.

He served as club president in 1980-81. That was the last term in which the club sang from a Rotary song book at meetings — a common practice among clubs that the Winfield chapter still observes. “Nobody really liked to sing,” Ross recalled. “They really didn’t enjoy it, so we quit.”

But serving as club president made him aware of the power that Rotary has, Ross said.

Rotary International’s polio eradication program is one example. The organization set a goal in 1988 to raise $120 million, but far exceeded that.

Along with its partners, Rotary International has reduced polio cases worldwide by 99.9 percent since 1979.

“That’s how powerful it is, and what it can do,” Ross said.

Modern times

Locally, the Ark City club has its own history of raising money for humanitarian needs.

In 1987, the organization partnered with the Agoo club in the Philippines to build water wells for small villages in the region.

The connection was made through Arkansas City native Rick Cleveland, who spent 10 years in the Philippines.

Each well cost $500 and 151 of them have been built through the years, most of them financed through Rotary.

Ross and others helped to raise funds from various clubs in the district when the project was started.

“Every place that we went, they gave us money,” Ross said.

Former member and past Rotary district governor John Kempf spearheaded the well water project for many years.

Branching out

The Ark City club has met at various locations throughout its history, including in the basement of the Osage Hotel and at Brick’s Restaurant. It currently gathers monthly in the Wright Room at Cowley College.

Rotary was opened to female members by court order in the late 1980s. In 2002-03, Marcia Stultz became the first of six female presidents for the local club.

Longtime member Wayne Hamilton, who became a Rotarian when Ross was president, said the group is more active today than when he and Ross first joined.

In the past, the club would raise dues and send money to a cause, he said, but for the past 15 years or so, members have become even more involved. “For a long time, we weren’t as service oriented as we are now,” Hamilton said. “And we do a lot more work now with the international foundation than we used to do.”

Service projects

In recent years, the local club has built two gazebos — one that currently is at Riverview Cemetery and a larger one in Wilson Park.

Rotary also buys and hands out a dictionary to every third-grader in Arkansas City.

The City of Flags project started about seven years ago provides an easy way for property owners to display American flags on five major holidays. There are about 300 flag subscriptions to date.

The club has used Rotary district grants to help to buy winter coats for low-income students and plant trees at the high school.

It supports various charities through financial contributions and provides college scholarships to local high school students.

Current club president Sarah Griggs said it is an honor to be part of Rotary.

“Through the years, Rotary has provided and supported many service projects to (the) community, such as the dictionary project, Habitat for Humanity, (the) Burford Theatre (and) Angels in the Attic, just to name a few,” she said. “We hope to continue serving Ark City for another 100 years.”