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History of the Rotary Club of Orangeburg

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“May our happiness increase with our usefulness. What Rotary will be one hundred years hence, none living can imagine. There is nothing impossible to Rotary now.” (1915)- Paul Harris, Rotary Founder

When the Rotary Club of Orangeburg was chartered in 1921, could the charter members have envisioned what the Club would be like in 1946? In 1971? In 1996? or In 2021?

The obvious answer to these rhetorical questions is “No”!

But the Rotary Club of Orangeburg has proven the words of its founder Paul Harris true: the club has shown that anything is possible and has continued to be a beacon of service and outreach to the Orangeburg and Orangeburg County community.

Over the past century, Rotary of Orangeburg has evolved into an organization that has been shaped by many forces: wars and other conflicts, the Great Depression and recessions, social and political changes, scientific and technological innovations, poverty , worldwide pandemics and other diseases, and other changes.

In the beginning

The Rotary Club of Orangeburg was organized in 1921 by a small group of local businessmen.

The need for the Club was driven primarily by economic conditions. The year was the first of the boll weevil infestation in South Carolina when the production of cotton in Orangeburg County dropped from 100 thousand to 18 thousand bales. The county was largely agriculturally based.

The club's charter members included Wallace Bethea, Laurie Wolfe, Eugene Atkinson, Bill Livingston, John Sifly, Henry Sims and others.

Bethea used his connections with the Columbia Rotary Club to have them sponsor the organization of the club in Orangeburg.

The Rotary Club of Orangeburg was chartered on May 19, 1921 with 24 members, becoming the 959th Club chartered by Rotary International.

The Club’s first President was charter member W. Eugene Atkinson. Presidents serve one-year terms.

At that time, Rotary International consisted of 958 clubs in 17 countries with 70,700 members.

In 1905, Harris initiated the first Rotary Club by meeting with three business associates in downtown Chicago.

What began as a men’s business club in 1905 has evolved into one of the world’s largest international service organizations with 35,000 plus clubs in over 200 countries and territories and over 1.2 million members.

The Orangeburg Rotary Club experiences growing pains

From its beginnings with 24 charter members, membership in the Club has fluctuated, often driven by external factors.

In 1951, thirty years after its founding the Club had increased its membership to 74.

However, during that period, at the peak of the Great Depression (1932-33), Club membership decreased from 55 to 45. This decrease occurred even as membership dues were decreased to $5.00 and meals were reduced from $.50 to $.40.

World War II also resulted in a membership decline as several members joined the military services.

The ebb and flow of Club membership has occurred over the past century with declines generally occurring during wars, global crises and economic downturns and increases occurring during more prosperous times.

Since its founding, the Club has sponsored the establishment of several other Rotary clubs such as the St. Matthews Rotary Club (chartered Dec. 29, 1961); the Rotary Club of Lake Marion (1987), the Rotary Club of Barnwell (1990), and the Orangeburg Breakfast Rotary Club (1996).

For its first 68 years the Club was all male.

In 1987 Rotary International altered its bylaws to admit women to its clubs.

On November 17, 1989, Orangeburg attorney Karen Williams made history by becoming the first woman member of the Rotary Club of Orangeburg.

Club traditions

The Club has held weekly meetings since its inception despite the fact that many clubs during the Great Depression moved to monthly and bimonthly meetings.

Weekly meetings have featured a program component that included a speaker. In 1978 the Club was visited by Rotary International President Clem Renouf.

Programs have featured a wide range of local, state , national and occasional international presenters on topics including business, education, community interest, health, economic development, sports, public safety, and subjects that would be informative for Club members.

The club used to publish paper yearbooks and weekly bulletins but the advances in information technology and digital media platforms have resulted in the discontinuation of these publications.

Another Rotary Club of Orangeburg tradition has been the custom made felt banner display.

Each Rotary Club has a custom made felt banner with its name and district number on it.

Clubs made miniature versions of their banner that members exchanged when visiting other clubs to make up missed meetings.

Exchanging banners was very popular from the 1970 ‘s until recently.

By 1985, the Orangeburg Rotary had amassed several dozen banners from around the globe. They were catalogued and organized for display. The practice of exchanging, collecting and displaying miniature banners has all but disappeared in recent years.

Club Cookouts and Sweetheart Nights

Historically, cookouts and evening meals have long been an integral part of the Club’s social experience and provided opportunities for members to mix and mingle in a relaxed setting.

During the earlier years of the Club evening meals were held at least once per year.

Cookouts began in the 1970’s and have continued in some version since.

Held at various venues, including the Country Club, cookouts began as steak dinners. Over time other items such as oysters were added to the menu.

More recently, this event has become a Sweetheart’s Night for members to invite spouses and special guests.

Held in the Spring of the year it has become a highly anticipated evening of fine dining, entertainment and fellowship. For several of these events Claflin University has hosted the Club for its “Rotary Night at Claflin “and provided memorable entertainment with its outstanding University Choir.

Music: Notes from the Past

During the first half of the Club’s existence music was a major part of its culture.

Each President selected a chairman of music who made sure that a piano was available for use by the Club.

During the weekly meetings time was scheduled for singing by the members. A pianist was hired to play for the Club and a Rotary song book was used by the members. In addition to singing the National Anthem, other songs were selected by the chairman of music. By the 1970’s this tradition was discontinued.

Fundraising Projects

The Rotary Club of Orangeburg has continued to be on the front lines of fundraising.

-- annual auctions

For many years, the Club conducted an annual auction to raise funds to support the scholarship program.

The auction’s success resulted in funding to support a robust scholarship program and other charitable giving. Occasionally, silent auctions are conducted at events such as cookouts and sweethearts night.

-- onion sales

In 1984-85 the Club began an onion sales project to raise funds to supplement operating expenses and provide support for the scholarship program.

Onions were purchased from the Vidalia, Georgia area. Club members were responsible for selling the bags of onions. Over a period of eight years, 1988-96, the Club earned $70,600 from the sale.

-- barbecue dinners and oyster roasts

Beginning in 1980, the Club began annual barbecue dinner sales.

Initially, Dukes Barbecue prepared the meals which the Club sold tickets for, at a profit.

Eventually, the Club began to purchase the ingredients and prepare the meals which generated a greater profit.

Oyster roasts were started in 2011 and used the same ticket sales model as the barbecue dinners.

-- pancake suppers

The first pancake suppers were held between 1960 and 1963.

Members sold tickets and managed all aspects of the cooking and serving of the meals.

This labor-intensive but financially successful project was discontinued for 28 years but resumed in 1991-92.

Today the pancake supper remains a major source of revenue to support the operating budget of the club. The event was renamed “ The Sonny Williams Pancake Supper” to honor Sonny’s legacy as a longtime chairman of the pancake supper committee and for serving as a pancake chef extraordinaire.

-- C.A.R.T.

The CART (Coins for Alzheimer’s Research Trust) Fund was begun in October 1995 at the Rotary Club of Sumter, SC in District 7770.

The project is based on Rotarians emptying their pockets of change into blue buckets at weekly meetings to support Alzheimer’s disease research.

Orangeburg Club is also in District 7770 and was among the first clubs to support CART.

The Rotary Club of Orangeburg also contributes a portion of the proceeds from its annual golf tournament to support CART.

According to District 7770 , the Rotary Club of Orangeburg has contributed a total of $99,801 to support the CART fund over time.

-- Duck race

In recent years the Club has conducted the annual duck race.

Members purchased and sold tickets at $10.00 each to “adopt a duck”.

The race involved hundreds of numbered rubber ducks being dumped into the Edisto River at the Gardens or in recent years, into the lazy river at the YMCA. The ducks raced to the finish line for cash prizes.

Prizes were awarded to the top ten winners , at $1,500 for first place and lesser awards down to $20.00. The fundraising event provides funding for scholarships.

-- the Annual Karen J. Williams Turkey Ball Tournament

This golf tournament was begun in 2014 in honor and memory of Judge Karen Williams who died in 2013 after battling early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The event is held at the Orangeburg Country Club. Tournament proceeds are used to support the Karen J. Williams Alzheimer’s Fund of the RMC Foundation, the CART Fund, the SC Alzheimer’s Association “Ride-to-Remember “ campaign, Rotary scholarships and general club operating expenses.

Service Projects

The Rotary Club of Orangeburg has participated in a number of service projects.

The club served as the sponsor for the establishment of Boy Scout Troop 45 in Orangeburg. Troop 45 was chartered in 1937 and has maintained a continuous 85-year relationship with this Club, the longest of any community organization.

As of April 2021, Troop 45 has produced 169 Eagle Scouts over its 85 year history. Another nine Life Scouts are working to complete their Eagle requirements.

-- student loans and scholarships

Since 1927, the Club has had an interest in supporting college attendance by deserving students.

That year, a student loan fund was established. The Loan Fund lasted until 1955, a period of 28 years. By then the G.I. Bill and other federal loan and grant programs began to provide additional support for college attendance.

The Club’s current Scholarship Program was initiated in 1980 and has continued almost every year since.

Over the past 40 years, hundreds of Orangeburg area students have received Rotary Scholarships to support their college aspirations.

In 2019 the scholarship awards were increased to $1,500 each. For the last three years, 2019- 21, the Rotary Club of Orangeburg has awarded $36,000 in scholarship support.

-- support for crippled children and PolioPlus

A Crippled Children committee was a part of the Club from the early 1920’s until the first polio vaccine was developed by Dr. Jonas Salk.

The Club’s primary activity was to provide financial support to the March of Dimes during its annual fund drive.

In 1980, Rotary International began its current global project, PolioPlus, with the ambitious goal of contributing to the global eradication of polio.

Since 1985, the Rotary Club of Orangeburg has contributed $64,325 to support the PolioPlus initiative.

-- Happy Feet

Since 2014 the Club has participated in the Happy Feet program which is funded through a matching grant from Rotary District 7770.

This program provides free shoes and socks to elementary school students in need. An average of about 100 students each year benefit from the program.

-- Ride-to-Remember: Fighting Alzheimer’s Disease

Since 2005, the South Carolina Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association has sponsored “Ride-to-Remember “, a fundraiser to raise awareness and funds to fight Alzheimer’s disease.

The annual ride consists of 200 to 400 bicyclists who ride more than 250 miles in three days: from Simpsonville in the upstate to Mt. Pleasant on the coast.

Along the way the riders make overnight stops in Newberry and Orangeburg counties. Orangeburg to Mt. Pleasant is the final leg of the ride.

During the cyclists’ stopover in Orangeburg members of the Rotary Club of Orangeburg and the Lions clubs and volunteers from the First Baptist Church partner to prepare and serve a full course meal to the cyclists.

Funding to help support this event and the SC Alzheimer’s Association is made possible by the Club’s annual golf tournament.

-- The Karen J. Williams Alzheimer’s Fund

In 2015, an endowed fund was established at the Regional Medical Center Foundation in memory of Judge Williams.

Proceeds from the Club’s annual golf tournament are contributed to this Fund.

This funding assists patients and families throughout Bamberg, Calhoun, Orangeburg and Barnwell counties that are affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

-- Orangeburg Calhoun Free Medical Clinic

This clinic treats the medically uninsured that live in Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.

The Clinic was founded in August 2009 by Dr. Bert Gue, a former Rotary Club of Orangeburg President, and his wife Jeanne. Orangeburg Rotary provides financial support to the Free Medical Clinic during its annual fund drive.

-- Interact Clubs

Interact is a Rotary International service club for young people ages 12 -18.

The Rotary Club of Orangeburg has sponsored two local interact clubs at local high schools: Orangeburg Preparatory School (1984) and Orangeburg- Wilkinson High School(1914).

-- Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit housing organization designed for individuals in need of affordable housing.

Rotary Club of Orangeburg supports the Edisto Habitat for Humanity of Orangeburg through contributions to Habitat’s annual fund drive, providing meals for work crews, and having Club members serve as volunteers to help construct Habitat homes in the local community. Habitat is a very valuable asset to this community.

-- Bell ringing for the Salvation Army

Since the 1980’s this Club has participated in the Salvation Army’s kettle donations drive.

The Orangeburg Rotary Club has participated in many worthy projects that benefit the community and respond to targeted needs.

Many but not all of these efforts have been supported by the Club over a shorter period of time.

Some of these initiatives have included: literacy programs and donated books for elementary school students; support for the elderly, including donating air conditioners in the summer; International Youth Exchange; Student Essay Contests; Support for clean water; the RIDDE (Rotarians in Drug Deterrence Education) program; and Children’s Walk at the Gardens.

The future

The Club is also future orientated using its core values of fellowship, integrity, diversity, service and leadership to impact the 21st century and beyond.

Paul Harris wrote in 1935 that story of Rotary 'will have to be written again and again.”

What will the Club be like in 2046? In 2071?

Changes at all levels of society, local to global, will continue to accelerate at ever increasing speed.

There will be unimaginable advances in science and technology as well as societal and structural changes. How can this Club respond to these immutable forces of change and still survive and thrive in the future?

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