An Enduring Legacy: The Rotary Club of Lebanon

As long as humans have roamed the earth, we’ve been coming together around common interests. We’ve formed groups of all kinds – tribes, guilds, coalitions, communities, associations, and clubs, to name a few. At last count, the online database – Cause IQ – listed almost 32,000 community service clubs and organizations in the United States. This year, the Rotary Club of Lebanon is celebrating 100 years of community service, as it steadfastly maintains the Rotary tradition of “Service Above Self” while continuing to find ways to adapt to our changing times.

Fellowship, service projects, and leadership development are deeply embedded in the club’s priorities, and always have been. Bruce Pacht, a Rotary Club of Lebanon member since 1976, points to the emergence of a sense of social responsibility and caring for one another as a catalyst for the founding of many service organizations in the early 1900’s – Boys Scouts, Red Cross, Rotary and Lions Clubs among them. “The purpose of Rotary was then – and still is – based on four points: the development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service; high ethical standards in business and professions; service in personal, business, and community life; and the advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace,” says Pacht. This sentiment is echoed by club member Ron Michaud, who is active in international projects. “Community service has been very important to me both professionally and in my private life,” Michaud says. “Rotary’s focus on positive community spirit and enhancing people’s lives happens in a very dramatic and sometimes hidden way.”

Jim Damren, fellow Rotarian, standing in line to register for a Rotary golf tournament

The club has chosen to develop a new kind of park called “Harmony Park,” located on the walking mall in downtown Lebanon. The park features colorful bells, chimes, drums, and other outdoor musical instruments accessible to all. According to current club president Ed Friedman, Harmony Park is wonderfully aligned with Rotary’s mission. “It’s Rotary’s gift to the City. We’re a group of like-minded people trying to do the best in our community and worldwide,” he says.

Harmony Park, a new Rotary-sponsored community fun-spot in Lebanon

A common thread among many groups like Rotary is the importance of building friendships and actively working on projects that serve humanity and the environment – both locally and globally. Rotary International is one of the few service organizations that has withstood the test of time, enduring plagues, wars, depression, recession, and other global and domestic disasters across its 118 year history.

Rotary was originally founded with four members in 1905 by Chicago attorney Paul Harris, who was looking for business and social connections in his new home town that mirrored his upbringing in Wallingford, VT. Today’s Rotary International has more than 1.4 million members worldwide, with 36,000 clubs operating in 200 countries. Rich in tradition, yet responsive to societal trends, Rotary International recently added “protecting the environment” to its areas of focus which also include promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, saving mothers and children, supporting education, and growing local economies. The organization is seeing growth in Asia and India, where new wealth and young people are merging to continue practicing the Rotary service ethic, while clubs based in the U.S. are strategizing on how to attract the next generation. Hybrid meetings, e-clubs, partnerships, a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, global exchanges, and clubs for young emerging leaders are evolving in various forms throughout the world. The latest evolutionary milestone was the 2022 installation of the first female president of Rotary International, a communications executive from Canada. Today, regardless of how volunteers identify, all are welcome to join, and international virtual fellowships have been formed including “Empowering Women”, “LGBTQ & Friends”, and “Young Rotarians”, along with “Peace Fellows”, “Urban Gardening”, and about 100 other special interest fellowships.

The Rotary Study Room at the Lebanon Library

Marilyn Bedell, a long-time member, past Rotary Club of Lebanon president, and past district governor (regional oversight of 41 clubs) notes that the Lebanon club has worked with numerous local and regional partners to achieve its goals. “We’ve done flu shot clinics with the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley and projects with the LISTEN Center. Environmental projects like polystyrene recycling with Sustainable Lebanon and trail and river clean ups with the Lebanon Conservation Commission have been very successful. Our service trips to El Salvador with Epilogos Charities address our international service goals,” she says.

One of the signature projects falling under the new environmental protection focus is the Mascoma River Clean Up, held every other year along the length of the river in the City. For more than a decade, volunteers working on foot and in canoes have removed trash and debris from the river in collaboration with the Conservation Commission and City departments. An unusual array of items has been discovered over the years, including car tires, a farm tractor tire, and a boiler. Ernst Oidtmann, a retired physician, clean up coordinator, and member of the Conservation Commission reports in the club newsletter that 30 participants turned out for the most recent clean up. “We had four Rotaractors (18-30 year old Rotarians) from the Rotary Club of Hanover, many members of the Lebanon Conservation Commission, and City Manager and fellow Rotarian, Shaun Mulholland,” he says. “The good news is that the river continues to be less littered than when we started this service project long ago.”

Rotarians lend a helping hand at the Epilogos house build project in El Salvador

A testimony to the evolving nature of Rotary is shared by veteran member of 50 years, Steve Whitman. “Interact (high school volunteers) and Rotaract is where I think the future is,” he says. “If we can get students involved in community service we can ease the pressure on the teachers and build the next generation of club members.” Rotarian Joy Gobin, who coordinates the eight-year-old Lebanon High School Rotary Interact Club, says, “We try to mirror the goals and activities of Rotary. It doesn’t make sense in our world today to stay in your own lane, because resources are so thin, so you have to look at the big picture. There is more engagement by the students because they have a voice in how to give their time.” Interact club members have initiated a 24/7 food pantry at LISTEN, collaborated with The Haven to knit 200 hats, gloves, scarves to donate to those in need, and raised funds to support girls’ education in Ecuador. 

Incoming President David Crandall has designs for revitalizing the club as well. “We want to keep Rotary vibrant and engaged through community projects like Harmony Park,” he says. When Crandall moved to the Upper Valley four years ago, he looked at joining a few civic organizations so he could meet new people. “I went to a Rotary lunch,” he remembers. “The people were so friendly and I was impressed at how organized it was, and that people really cared about being in Rotary. You feel like you’re doing good work and most importantly it’s enjoyable.”

Rotarians Bill Secord and Bruce Bergeron sharing memories of their house build in El Salvador at a club meeting

As chair of the 100th Anniversary Committee, Crandall notes that 2023 is a big year for Rotary. The committee looked at a dozen different projects working with the City’s Recreation, Arts & Parks director Paul Coats and the City Council to honor the anniversary and give back to the community. In the end, because of the club’s musical history (long-time music teacher Doris Mollica played the piano at club meetings), the Harmony Park concept was selected.

The “magic” of Rotary is to identify a compelling cause and gather volunteers to take action to get things done. Internationally, Rotary is focused on eradicating polio in partnership with national and international foundations through improved sanitation and vaccines. The initiative began in the Philippines in 1978 with millions of child immunizations. The results of this global focus is that worldwide, polio cases have now dropped by 99%.

Locally, Rotary magic shows up in a full calendar of events and projects according to board member and Community Service Committee chair Bruce Bergeron. “The Community Service Committee is what got me involved in Rotary 30 years ago,” he says. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about all the other avenues of service that Rotary offered in particular, because I wanted to get involved in my own community.” Project highlights include giving a personalized book to every 1st grader (as one child told a Rotarian, “this is blowing my mind!”), sending local youth to the Rotary Youth Leadership Assembly, developing several parks throughout the City, and international projects to build houses, eradicate guinea worm disease, and provide clean water and enhanced food production.

Rotarian Marilyn Bedell expresses the question of many service club leaders in today’s digital age: “How can Rotary become the service club of choice for the next generation?” Her advice: “Don’t think you have to commit to joining Rotary when you first start coming. You can have a wonderful time connecting with a great group of people, and then decide.” Bedell would not have had the risk-taking experiences, joys, adventures, and ability to create change in herself if not for Rotary International, she says. “We are really trying to educate ourselves about how our club can innovate and inspire the next generation as we keep evolving over time,” she added. Bedell tells the story of a local Nepalese couple who supported their daughter’s attendance at the Rotary Youth Leadership Awakening program and now the young woman is a dynamic member of the community.

Rotarians Jim Damren (vest) and Angela Nelson (royal blue top)distributing personalized books to first-grade students in Lebanon
Rotarians Jim Damren (vest) and Angela Nelson (royal blue top)distributing personalized
books to first-grade students in Lebanon

Today’s Rotary members suggest that the next generation needs networking and human connection just as much as they all did when searching for a way to get involved in their community. It stands to reason that the timeless human need of coming together for the betterment of others is still relevant, even in the digital age.