It was "Beatles Month" at Downtown Rotary when I joined Madison's oldest, largest and most important service club in 2001. As I looked out from the dais and saw my old University of Wisconsin Law School professor Gordon Baldwin - engaging academic and campus chair of the 1972 Nixon campaign - singing "Eleanor Rigby," I knew this was the club for me.
Maybe my motive wasn't entirely altruistic. I was still a recovering politician back then, and I knew that if I ever did run for mayor, I would need Rotarians.
But I soon learned it was Madison itself that has needed Rotary and its members. Without them, we would be a lesser city.
Individually and collectively, Rotarians have been making big things happen here since the club's founding in 1913, including the UW Arboretum, Law Park, the John Nolen causeway, the Civic Center, United Way and the public pool.
The first president, John McKenna, developed Shorewood Hills and the Westmorland neighborhood. Charter Rotarian John H. Findorff, founder of the city's prominent construction company, was in charge when the gold statue Wisconsin was hoisted atop the Capitol in 1914. Longtime Rotarians Lowell Frautschi and Porter Butts were so important to the creation of the UW Memorial Union they laid its cornerstone in 1925. There are schools, parks, streets, buildings, awards, even a neighborhood, all named after Rotarians.
Since 1974, the Madison Rotary Foundation has provided mentors and $3.53 million in college scholarships to 563 area high school students. Since 1986, it's also given $5.8 million for senior fitness, community, international and youth programs. Local Rotarians also contribute generously to Rotary International's worldwide campaign to eradicate polio.
Downtown Rotary, one of eight Rotary clubs in the city, was chartered as the 71st Rotary club in June 1913. With 502 members, it's now the eighth largest of the 34,000 clubs worldwide. Not bad for America's 87th largest city.
The Rotary Club of Madison is celebrating its first century with a series of events, including an informal Capitol Theater gala, a historical video, talks, the dedication of Centennial Plaza near the Children's Museum, and a SummerPalooza of family fun (see RotaryMadison.org for details).
Success and service
With its first official motto - "He profits most who serves best" - and an early code of ethics that quoted the Golden Rule, Rotary has always associated success with service. It seems to have worked; the electrical company started by club founder Bob Nickles still thrives more than a century later, as do several other companies founded by charter or other early members.
The current motto, "Service above self," continues the call of the Social Gospel, as does the Four-Way Test for personal and business dealings, adopted in 1943: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1987, however, before Rotary International was fair to all, namely women. The local club had petitioned for years to be allowed to admit women, but was only able to do so after a California affiliate successfully sued for that right. Now about a quarter of Downtown Rotary's membership is female, and Renee Moe will become the club's eighth female president in June.
Although the club would eventually ban political advocacy, it indulged in the practice in the early days, pressing on one occasion for more downtown parking. In 1914, it implored the city in a board of directors resolution to provide hitching posts and restrooms "to be used by farmers and other visitors" so they would do more shopping.
The city ignored that plea, but other issues championed at Rotary meetings would have greater impact. A 1928 Rotary appearance by parks philanthropist Michael Olbrich was critical to creating the Arboretum, while a 1937 talk by pioneer urban planner Ladislas Segoe led directly to his drafting a two-volume comprehensive plan for the city that was implemented. Both events were orchestrated by former club president Joe "Bud" Jackson, Madison's most successful catalyst for progressive planning and economic development.
With several hundred attendees, the weekly luncheons are Madison's largest ongoing assembly, useful for generating publicity. With the group singing, birthday greetings and recognition of members in the news (but only for positive items), they're also a lot of fun.
Only rarely does political conflict intrude.
In February 1964, picketers protested outside the Hotel Loraine while segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace brushed off a telephoned death threat to tell a Rotary luncheon that the pending civil rights bill was based on "propaganda, lies and misunderstanding." And in May 1968, 300 protesters chanted antiwar slogans and hurled about two dozen eggs at federal draft director Lewis Hersey on his second appearance before the club.
Two Rotary families have arguably been the most important families in Madison history. While Emil Frautschi ran the family fuel, funeral and furniture enterprises, he also served a decade as president of the vocational school that became Madison College, helped found the Chamber of Commerce (with son Lowell), and served on the boards of numerous civic groups. A Rotarian for 44 years, he and first son Walter were the only father/son presidents in the club's history.
Printing executive Walter served as president of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and other groups, and led the campaign that raised $1.5 million to create the Madison Civic Center (which his son, Jerry, returned to its original status as the Capitol Theater when he spent $205 million to create the Overture Center). Lowell, also a longtime member, ran the campaign that raised critical funds for construction of the UW Memorial Union and was its first president. He was also instrumental in founding the United Way.
Another set of brothers - jewelers Irwin and Robert Goodman - also had a profound impact on the quality of life in Madison through personal philanthropy that totaled about $10 million. The longtime Rotarians gave the key gifts to fund the city's first, and still only, public pool, the new public library in south Madison, and other facilities serving Jewish programs, seniors, students and community members.
Some sharp wits have found Rotarians a bit dull. H.L. Mencken satirized the archetypal Rotarian in 1924 as a real estate agent who, "seeking to conceal his real purpose in life, lets it be known grandly that he is an important semi-public functionary, that he has consecrated himself to service and is a man of vision." Sinclair Lewis and C.K. Chesterton also took their shots - as did Hitler, who banned Nazi Party members from joining the German Rotary in 1937.
Yes, the positive vibe sometimes verges on self-parody. "Rotary Hears Good Results of Depression," a local headline declared in May 1933, covering a Madison talk by Paul Harris, founder and president emeritus of Rotary International. The Depression "hasn't been so bad after all," he said, because it had given businessmen time for books and "the better things of life."
Eighty years later, a century after its founding, the Rotary Club of Madison still works for the better things in our collective life.