Franklin Rotary Club celebrates century of service

Published 2:30 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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The Rotary Club of Franklin’s 2024 Charter Night was one for the ages because it doubled as the club’s 100th Anniversary Celebration.

A century of service began with the club’s founding on April 16, 1924.

On Thursday, April 11, 2024, at The Village at Woods Edge, a gathering of Rotarians and their guests reflected on the rich history and legacy of the Franklin Rotary.

“Our annual Charter Night was such a special celebration,” Franklin Rotary President Dr. Charles Qualls said in a Friday, April 12, interview. “As I said at (Franklin) City Council earlier in the week, and again last night, you only turn 100 once. This was a night almost a year in the making. We had a 100th Anniversary Committee, chaired by Galen Butler. I have to give him and the group all the credit for how well things went. 

“Among so many components, we heard the City of Franklin proclamation (honoring the club for 100 years of service), we announced our Legacy Project for our city, and we recognized our Rotarian of the Year,” he continued. “We received greetings from our past district governor, Kenny Janes. The current assistant governor for Area 10, Susan Blair, also brought her greetings as we celebrated.”

Bill Billings, a board member of the Franklin Rotary Club, said, “I thought it was an outstanding Charter Night, because we were able to review the past and talk about what we’d accomplished, and it was a great feel-good experience.”

Qualls noted that other components of the two-hour dinner and program on April 11 included a champagne toast to the club’s past and future and a brief history of Franklin Rotary’s charter in 1924.

Billie Turner was presented with the Mac Coker Rotarian of the Year award.

Giving an idea of what the Franklin Rotary Club is all about, Qualls summarized its mission.

“The Rotary Club of Franklin joins with over 46,000 clubs worldwide to share in local fellowship and to embody our motto, ‘Service Above Self,’” he said. “In fact, Rotary International’s website says it this way — ‘The object of Rotary is to encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise and, in particular, to encourage and foster: 

“1. The development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service; 

“2. High ethical standards in business and professions, the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations, and the dignifying of each Rotarian’s occupation as an opportunity to serve society;

“3. The application of the ideal of service in each Rotarian’s personal, business and community life; and 

“4. The advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.”

Billings noted that local historian Clyde Parker, though not a club member, was an honorary guest Thursday evening because he is helping facilitate the club’s Legacy Project for the city, which is tied to the organization’s 100th anniversary.

“For our celebration project, what we’re doing is we’re putting historical plaques on all the businesses in Franklin, and I think we’ve got approval for about 36 so far,” Billings said, explaining that the plaques will provide background on the businesses and buildings.

Billings has been a club member for 45 years, a tally second only to Jim Rainey, and he is also an experienced photographer. Billings put together a 161-slide PowerPoint presentation featuring Franklin Rotary photos spanning the past 30-plus years, and this slideshow played on TVs at the celebration on April 11. He said the oldest photo he found was from 1993.

“We don’t have it all, but we’ve got a bunch,” he said.

To the best of his knowledge, Qualls described the impact of the Rotary Club of Franklin on the community across the past 100 years.

“The projects, sponsorships and emphases have surely changed over 100 years,” he said. “The club has risen to help meet the needs of each era. But what hasn’t changed is Rotary’s stated mission to foster healthy fellowship and a spirit of service above self. 

“Rotary has assisted and recognized local first responders along the way,” he continued. “We have sponsored Little League baseball teams in our area. We’ve sent YMCA young leaders to their regional events and have awarded untold thousands of dollars in college scholarships. In 100 years, there have been multiple generations of Franklin young people and adults helped tangibly by the money we’ve raised and the service projects our members have conducted.”

Billings said a project the club is most proud of was helping start the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Hampton Roads Franklin Unit in 2003.

“We heard about the Boys & Girls Club,” Billings said. “I caught the spark, and I visited every club in Norfolk and Portsmouth, and I beat the drum and got the support, and we got it started, and then (Boys & Girls Clubs) ran it. They are running it.”

He noted that the Franklin unit has really helped a lot of children.

Billings also highlighted an instance in which the Franklin Rotary Club’s impact extended far beyond the city limits.

“The one thing that the Rotary Club of Franklin did in the past that I’m most proud of is we built that bridge in Ethiopia,” he said.

He was referring to the Sebara Didliy Suspension Bridge that is located 50 feet above the Blue Nile River Gorge in Ethiopia. 

The structure is the product of a partnership between Rotary Clubs in Franklin; Newport News; Gloucester; Gloucester Point; Falls Church; Boulder Valley, Colorado; and Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

The bridge has a 110-yard span, it features four 30-millimeter support cables, two 20-millimeter hand-hold cables, and it was completed in November 2009.

Billings was among those who traveled to Ethiopia to help build it.

“That bridge saves people five days of walking each way,” he said. “How cool is that?”

He said that children who did not want to walk five days would swim, but the waters were treacherous as they contained man-eating crocodiles.

Qualls reflected further on the Franklin Rotary Club’s history.

“It’s fascinating to read our compiled list of Rotary presidents from Franklin over our century of existence,” he said. “There are multiple generations of a few families represented there. Sol Rawls and Sol Rawls Jr. have both led our club. ‘Big Frank’ and ‘Little Frank’ Jester both served as presidents, just to name a couple of families. 

“The Rotarians of 100 years ago would hardly recognize our club now as being the same Rotary, because we’re far less formal,” he added. “I always say our weekly meetings are ‘the funniest hour in Franklin’ each Friday.”

He noted that the club has had to evolve and adjust to cultural realities. 

“Women have enriched our club to a great extent since they were first admitted back in the late ’80s,” he said. “Attendance is no longer strictly required, because that had become a barrier to new members and retaining established ones. But if anything, it’s possible we’ve shifted to a more active profile on the ‘service’ part of our identity.”

He said the club has also added a monthly Happy Hour Social that is immensely popular. 

Then, he highlighted several more notable projects the club has undertaken.

“For many of those 100 years, Rotary worldwide has worked with health agencies to eradicate the terrible illness Polio,” he said. “We are close. These last few years, we have been down to one remaining country that won’t give us access to immunize its people. Some of these years, there have only been about six cases of Polio worldwide. Through our foundation contributions, we’ve been part of that.

“Health care is only one of our seven major Rotary initiatives,” he said. “I think that’s why people are still joining our Rotary Club. They value the fellowship, and they value the service.

“We have an ongoing project with the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore,” he continued. “That kind of activity feels worth people’s time to be a part of.”

He stated that the club has a mile of North High Street that it keeps clean. 

“Several times a year, Don Spengeman organizes a group of us to go pick up garbage along that mile,” he said. “That is a visible service we perform for our community.”

Qualls also noted that annually, the club offers a First Responders Steak Dinner to thank all of the police, fire and rescue personnel that impact the region. 

“This year, we (served) over 200 meals that night,” he said. “It’s our way of taking care and affirming those who lay their lives on the line.”