At 90 Years Old, The Maywood Rotary Club Looks Good For Its Age

January 23, 2014, MELROSE PARK || Michael Romain 

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IF you go out in that hallway and look in the closet, you’ll see a dais similar to this one,” said Gary Woll, President of the Maywood Rotary Club, at the organization’s 90th Anniversary luncheon held at Tom’s Steakhouse in Melrose park. He suspects that the closeted dais belonged to the Melrose Park Rotary Club, which disbanded years ago.

“I’m told that the reason the club split was because the first woman member joined,” he said. In reaction to that particular milestone, the club allegedly established a Berlin Wall-like partition, fracturing into two clubs–one for the men and the other for the women. That was when Rotary meetings still strongly resembled the homogenized, hierarchical setting of a Mad Men episode. The idea of women (much less minorities) serving in positions of prominence–in commerce and in culture–was a shock to the postwar, suburban order; one from which even Rotary wasn’t shielded. For many clubs, like the one in Melrose Park, the systemic change would prove too disruptive.

“Maywood started the Melrose Park club [and Hillside and Broadview as well, among others],” Mr. Woll said. “One by one, they’re all gone.”

That the Maywood Rotary was able to adjust, albeit not easily, to such significant cultural change speaks volumes to the cultural resilience and tolerance of the Village’s residents–people like Lois Baumann.

Mrs. Baumann, who along with her husband Ernie, operate Maywood Fine Arts, was sitting at a table toward the back of the darkly lit banquet room, a few seats away from Lennel Grace, a former Rotarian himself. The two were classmates at Garfield Elementary School in Maywood, back when the presence of either of them at a Rotary Club meeting would’ve been considered a novelty, to say the least.

“I’ve got stories,” Mr. Grace said as we sat waiting for the salad, a subtle reference to the psychological punishment he endured as one among a handful of black students in what at the time was an all-white school.

Mrs. Baumann has stories, too. She remembers the things her white classmates would do to students like Mr. Grace. The memories only reinforce her sense that even after all these years, there’s a lot of progress that’s still waiting to happen. When Maywood began to open up to blacks in the 60s and 70s, many of Mrs. Baumann’s school friends began to leave–just as she and Ernie were beginning to establish a legacy on 5th Avenue, where their tumbling and dance studios are located, that would linger to this day. Rare is the resident of Maywood who doesn’t know someone who’s either a present or former student of the Baumann’s–or a neighbor–the couple have lived in Maywood longer than they’ve worked there.

Mrs. Baumann recalled a recent visit she took to an elementary school and the kids were talking about Martin Luther King. Many, she said, began referencing his “I Have A Dream” speech. And one little girl in particular talked as if King’s dream had been realized. Mrs. Baumann seemed saddened as she recalled the girl’s innocence and the institutionalized naivete that’s instilled in most schoolchildren when it comes to thinking about social progress, as if it’s just something that magically appears out of nowhere; something that people read about in stale textbooks, instead of live through and for which they must sacrifice; something that’s ongoing.

Over and over, as I talked with Rotarians and non-Rotarians who have benefited from the Club’s endearing altruism, that’s the theme that was reinforced. It’s the organization’s primary motto: “Service above Self.” Sacrifice.

Leonore Sanchez has been a member since 1997. She served as the Maywood Rotary’s first Latina president.

“Rotary is like going to church–it makes you feel good. It’s a worthwhile institution that’s worth preserving in the community,” she said.

“I was recruited by Leonore,” said Roberto Sepulveda, one of the organization’s newest members. “It’s an extension of my family, it has similar values.”

“The idea of being involved in a group of service outside of a church is a good thing,” said Bernard Hedley.

Hedley, Sanchez and Sepulveda are non-Maywoodians who nonetheless help comprise the backbone of the Maywood Rotary, many of whose members reside in places other than Maywood.

In a way, the Maywood Rotary reflects what’s perhaps one of the most understated aspects of the Village–its embrace of diversity. Many of Rotary’s members already understand intuitively that if their organization is to survive another 90 years, it will have to open itself up even more to a changing demographic.

“Going forward,” said Mr. Grace, “I’d love to see Rotary broaden [its base]….It needs to be made more meaningful and relevant–in a way that matters.”

Not that the organization hasn’t made strides in this direction already.

“We’re looking to expand our service area to Proviso Township,” said Mr. Woll. “Already, five of our members live in Melrose Park, a couple live in Bellwood….” he said. The presence of such a diverse group of non-Maywoodians is almost certainly a determining factor in the Maywood Rotary’s unlikely existence–years after similar social service clubs have succumbed to a host of external pressures.

Just as crucial, however, is the Maywood Rotary’s core of longtime members–the ones who stayed in the midst of those social pressures. Mr. Woll joined the club in 1994. Former Maywood mayor Donald Williams joined in 1969. Board member Charles Laabs joined in 1979 and maintained perfect attendance at the Rotary’s weekly meetings for three decades. Bonnie Libka, the club’s secretary, has maintained perfect attendance for two decades. James Mitchell has been a member for 28 years.

It’s this continuity that’s made the club such a force in Maywood for so long. At its anniversary luncheon, retiring Maywood Village Manager William Barlow, also a Rotarian, was acknowledged for his service. He joined the Club soon after he was hired in 2011. As he was taking his leave, though, Maywood’s current clerk, Viola Mims, was being inducted as one of the club’s newest members. Currently the club maintains a membership of about 26 and membership is by invitation only.

Rotary Then and Now

The first Rotary Club was started in 1905 by attorney Paul P. Harris in Chicago. According to the organization’s site, the Club began as a place “where professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships. Rotary’s name came from the group’s early practice of rotating meetings among the offices of each member.”

Since its founding, Rotary has evolved into an international presence, with more than 1.2 million members in six continents throughout the world. In 1979, the organization’s primary focus became the global eradication of polio. That year, it initiated “a project to immunize 6 million children in the Philippines. By 2012, only three countries remain polio-endemic—down from 125 in 1988.”

The Maywood Rotary Club was founded in 1924 out of the Rotary club in Oak Park. That partnership between the Maywood and Oak Park clubs is still strong, with the two most recently collaborating in 2012 to sponsor students from India. As part of that collaboration, the foreign students were treated to a range of cultural experiences, such as the Cinco de Mayo celebration at Unity Temple in Oak Park. Some also stayed at the homes of various Rotarians, such as Mr. Woll and Mr. Mitchell.

According to a House Resolution (HR 756) personally presented by Rep. Chris Welch (D-7th), the “Maywood Rotary Club has raised over $100,000 in the last 10 years and donated half of it to local service projects such as PADS Aspire, Maywood Fine Arts, the Boys and Girls Club, the Young Men Christian’s Association, Boy and Girl Scout troops, and many others.”

The club’s annual dictionary drive, spearheaded by Ms. Sanchez, “has donated over 1,700 dictionaries to every 3rd grader in District 89 and the parochial schools.” It’s also “sent Proviso East High School students to live in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and is currently supporting a Melrose Park students who is a Rhodes Scholar studying at the University of Oxford.”

In addition to Rep. Welch other guests on hand to celebrate the Maywood Rotary’s 90th included Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins and the Maywood Rotary’s present district governor Cliff Lyda and district governor-elect Nicki Scott.

Mr. Lyda jovially summed up the Maywood Rotary’s journey thus far. “They say that the first 90 years is the hardest.” VFP

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