The May 4, 1944, issue of the Oregon Observer reported, “Word has been received from the Chicago headquarters of Rotary Club International that the newly organized Rotary Club of Oregon has been granted a charter by the Board of Directors of Rotary International.”
As one of more than 33,000 Rotary clubs worldwide 75 years later, Oregon Rotary continues to carry out a mission of local and international service. It provides support for local youth with scholarships, travel abroad programs and events like bike rodeos. The chapter also helps maintain the community through highway cleanups, park restorations and financial sponsorships.
The Rotary has met every week since first gathering on May 22, 1944, at Village Hall, a tradition that continues at Headquarters Bar and Restaurant on Tuesday mornings.
In an email to the Observer, club president Leslie Bergstrom described the meetings as “very friendly and collegial,” and though the ages and occupations of Rotary members vary, they are “united in a strong mission to serve our community.”
That service to Oregon officially began on June 12, 1944, with the club’s formal admission into Rotary International.
Today, the Rotary Club sustains its mission with two main fundraisers each year — making the non-Rotary members of the community key to Rotary’s work.
The club’s brat stand has been a mainstay at Oregon’s Summer Fest since 1970 and is an essential Rotary fundraiser, Bergstrom wrote. An artisan cheese and wine tasting, which is hosted at Gorman and Company’s Red Brick Gym, began more recently in 2010, but has come to rival the success of the popular brat stand.
“We cannot fund scholarships, help maintain Lerner Park or fund community grant requests without the tremendous support we receive from the community when they attend our events or participate in our fundraisers,” Bergstrom wrote.
Though not nearly as old as the club itself, one of the Rotary’s longest running projects has continued to cultivate a village green space since 1999.
When the village purchased farmland west of Oregon from the Lerner family for use as an industrial park, it was specified by the family that any unused portion should be placed in a conservancy.
Ending up with roughly 60 acres of extra land, Rotarians Al Miller, Larry Mahr and Arlan Kay, who were on the Village Planning Commission, suggested a rehabilitation of the area. The three gained the approval of the Rotary, and the club set to work removing trash and brush from the land, including invasive honeysuckle.
The area became known as Lerner Conservation Park and saw the addition of trails, benches and observation decks. The Rotary Club continues to make improvements to the park and sets controlled prairie burns every spring.
Miller, who has been credited as the “father” of the park, told the Observer the park is “kind of a secret.”
“I don’t think the community as a whole understands what’s there,” he said. “Those that know about it love it.”
The park also serves as an important educational tool for Oregon schools. Students are introduced to the park in second grade, participate in restoring the park in eighth grade and remain involved through high school with science classes and the school’s Ecology Club.
In 2011, the park helped spawn a greenhouse at Oregon Middle School in response to a need for plant storage, with students growing prairie plants to be moved to the park. OMS earth science teacher Nate Mahr enlisted the help of his father Larry and the Rotary Club in funding a “hoop house” at the middle school to accommodate the students’ work.
With students involved in the construction process, the Rotary raised a Quonset-hut-style greenhouse that students continue to use for a variety of applications, including growing vegetables for school lunches and housing various horticulture class projects.
People around the world have benefitted from Oregon’s club.
In 2012, Rotarians Al and Gail Brown started Bicycles for Humanity-Oregon WI, which collected unused bicycles in partnership with Canada-based movement Bicycles for Humanity.
With help from fellow Rotarians Jerry Tyler and Wendell Matzke and backed by Rotary funding, the program gathered and repaired over 1,000 bikes. In 2013, the project was renamed Spokes from Wisconsin and the Browns began looking into the complicated process of delivering the bikes to Africa.
Eventually the group received an offer of assistance from Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bikes for the World, Gail Brown told the Observer in an email.
The organization “had years of experience with customs, regulations and shipping around the world, including Africa,” Brown wrote, which allowed the group to Kenya and Cameroon.
Four years after the final bikes were delivered to Africa, the Browns got an update on the significance of Spokes from Wisconsin. The Kenya Volunteer and Community Development Project, or KVCDP, which received and distributed the bikes to local Kenyan communities, told the Browns in a March email the bikes had made a big difference.
“The bikes are still working and the parts are still helping with the repairs.” Jackie and Albert Ouko of the KVCDP reported. “It is helping the school for students coming from far and those who are walking long distance to work.
“We are very grateful for your support with the bikes and shipping cost,” they added.
The Rotary’s global impact has also been felt close to home.
Emma Prior, an OHS junior in 2010, received a rare chance to spend a year in Chile as part of the Rotary’s international youth exchange program.
“I think the thing that will stick with me the most are the friendships I’ve made here,” she told the Observer in 2011.
She expressed a hope that the relationships would “last for a lifetime.”
With 75 years of fostering international connections and strengthening the community at home, the Rotary Club of Oregon will commemorate this milestone in the summer and is planning an Aug. 3 picnic at Jaycee Park.
The club is also prepared for a future beyond those festivities by adapting “to the interests and busy schedules of (its) members,” Bergstrom wrote in an email.
“It is an organization that is flexible enough to have staying power,” Bergstrom wrote. “The focus on supporting the needs of our communities makes it pretty timeless.”