One hundred years ago this month, 22 businessmen banded together to start the Rotary Club of Charleston. Its members had names still familiar today — Cogswell, Fischer, Geer, Lesesne, Pinckney, Thornhill, Waring, and Way. Charleston’s then-new service club was the world’s 624th of what now numbers more than 33,000 clubs with 1.2 million members worldwide.
In popular culture, service clubs like Rotary, Sertoma, Kiwanis, Optimists, and Lions, don’t get a lot of love. Many view their members as too “establishment.” But without business and community leaders who volunteer in these important nonprofit civic organizations, our communities would be less whole. These civic organizations give leaders a real way to give back and push our communities forward. They are vital incubators for leadership and community empowerment. The kind hearts and commitment to public service of hundreds of Lowcountry members are found in the informal motto of the historic Charleston club: “Service above self.” It’s a slogan that any of the service clubs could adopt because of the good they do.
You’d probably be surprised to know how much the Rotary Club of Charleston has changed the Holy City. Not only did it provide seed money in the 1920s to build the city’s first modern hotel, the Francis Marion, but later club leaders provided initial funding that ignited the Coastal Community Foundation and the Trident United Way, both of which continue to make the Lowcountry better in countless ways. Rotarians fostered the early local Boy Scouts movement and beautified Marion Square. Just a few years ago, the club returned to the park to build a fountain that welcomes people at the corner of Calhoun and King streets. The club’s generosity also has been spread across the community through its Rotary Club of Charleston Fund, which has donated more than $300,000 over the past decade to local nonprofits and scholarships that make real differences in people’s lives.
And then there are the smaller projects that Rotarians in the Charleston club and others in the area do year after year from reading to kids in local elementary schools to improve literacy to adopting highways to beautify roadways. They ring Salvation Army bells at Christmas and buy holiday gifts for seniors at Ansonborough House. And they raise money for international causes, such as fighting to end polio worldwide and funding clean water machines for other countries in association with North Charleston’s Water Mission.
The Charleston that Rotarians faced daily when the club began a century ago is vastly different than today’s high-speed, inter-connected business environment that sometimes seems to devalue relationships and people. But thank goodness today’s Rotarians and their colleagues in Charleston share the same community zeal that founders had that inspired generations of “service above self.” Thank you, Rotarians and other service club members. Keep up the good work.