Our club was organized by the Staunton Rotary Club during a meeting on March 12th, 1921 in the city’s Kavanaugh Hotel. It was chartered on April 1st and held its first official meeting on April 9th, with attorney Ed Martz chosen as the first President. Historian John Wayland listed the club’s inception as one of five key events occurring in the city in 1921.
The club’s first project was the establishment of Camp Shenandoah BSA Camp, which was situated on the Hedrick farm beside the Shenandoah River near Island Ford; land owned by our former member Dick Hedrick’s family. Over the years the club spent around $45,000 in the development of the camp, which provided camp life to nearly 1,300 boys and close to 800 girls. After nine years, the club sold the camp to the Boy Scouts. Proceeds from the sale of the camp were used to set up a low interest student loan program to help deserving high school students attend college. The student was charged no interest or principal on the loan until they had obtained a job after graduation. One of the early recipients of a loan was a young man named Fred Funkhouser, who went on to become a successful banker in the city and over the years gave back to the club many thousands of dollars as his way of saying thanks. Over $200,000 in loans were made until, in 1991, under the leadership of then club president Jim Richardson, the fund was converted to scholarships and today we give six or seven scholarships of up to $2,000 to students from Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
Another club program which recognizes area young people is our annual Code of Ethics program. For many years only students from a couple of schools were being recognized but, under the leadership of then president Terry Rhodes, it was expanded to cover a young boy and girl from each school in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County and today is considered to be our signature program.
Another, and much more recently added program that impacts young people, is Project Read, initiated under the leadership of former club member Fred Fox. Project Read involves not only members of several Rotary clubs in the area, but also a number of area businesses and organizations, who volunteer to read to young students at elementary schools in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County during the early morning hours before classes begin. It began on a small scale, at only one school in Harrisonburg, but has now expanded to cover all the elementary schools in both the city and county.
The Harrisonburg Rotary Club has been involved in many projects in the community. One of the projects was the development of the city’s first swimming pool. At one club meeting, in just 10 minutes, the club collected $40,000 in subscriptions and then formed a corporation for construction of the pool. That pool was abandoned in 1970 when a new facility opened in Westover Park, another project of the club. Under the guidance of then-president Sam Shrum the club urged the city to buy the land for the park and contributed over half the money needed for architectural plans for it. (A little side bar, here’s a goal for some of our newer members to work on. Sam Shrum racked up 61 years of perfect attendance). Former city recreation director Cecil Gilkerson said that, without the Harrisonburg Rotary Club, Westover Park would not be in existence.
The club also promoted a senior center at the park, committing $18,000, half the construction money for the center, which opened in December of 1974. The 4,000 square foot Price-Rotary Center is named for former club member C. Grattan Price. When Price died in 1981, he was the last surviving charter member of the Harrisonburg Rotary Club.
The club has been involved in many other community and civic activities over the years, including: taking the initiative in the organization of Shenandoah Valley, Incorporated to, as the late Frank L. Sublett put it, tell the world of this beautiful Shenandoah Valley, the “Daughter of the Stars.” This new organization effectively sponsored the movement for the establishment of the Shenandoah National Park. The club is also responsible for sponsoring a dental clinic which performed over a thousand operations as well as the establishment and support of an orthopedic clinic, which served over 1,500 children, providing them with operations, braces, wheel chairs and orthopedic shoes.
Our club also originated and was instrumental in development of District 7570’s Leprosy Program, which helped construct a laundry facility and shelter over the water supply in a re-settlement village in Korea. The Harrisonburg Rotary Club was also a major supporter of a now-defunct Rotary Center in St. Marc, Haiti that was also a project of clubs throughout the District. The center provided health services and vocational training for Haitians in that area of the country. When support began to diminish, a separate organization called Reach Out to Haiti, was formed, comprised of Rotarians from several clubs in the District. The president of that organization was our own former club member, Jack Booth. Many of our club members made trips to the center to assist in the work. Outsiders were not allowed to own land in Haiti and our center was located on land owned by the Haitian Baptists. At some point, they approached Reach Out to Haiti officers and said they wanted them to co-mingle the organization’s money with theirs and that they wanted to run the facility. They were told the only way Reach Out to Haiti would stay there would be to continue as we had in the past, using its own money and volunteers to run it. The Haitians refused, Reach Out to Haiti left, and within a year the center was no longer in existence, a major loss to the St. Marc area of that impoverished country.
Another major project of the club was our annual Antiques Show and Sale, which was held for over 50 years at various locations, but in its last years, was held at JMU’s Convocation Center. It was the club’s major fund-raiser at the time. It finally reached the point where the club felt it was no longer a feasible fund-raising option and it was discontinued.
We were honored in 1996, the club’s 75th Anniversary year, by having then Rotary International President Herb Brown of Clearwater, Florida, come as our speaker and guest of honor.
Since its inception, our club has sponsored a number of other Rotary clubs in the area, including Winchester, Woodstock, Luray, Bridgewater, Rockingham, Harrisonburg-Massanutten and Broadway-Timberville. Our club, with a membership of nearly 200, is one of the largest in District 7570, which runs along the I-81 corridor from Winchester in the north down to Johnson City, Tennessee. Our club has been honored to have had three of its members serve as District Governor over the years. They were Lynn C. Dickerson, who served in 1944-1945, Percy H. Warren, who served in 1955-1956, Abe Clymer, who served in 1999-2000. Member Chris Runion will serve as District Governor during the Rotary year 2016-17 as the club's fourth District Governor.
There are many other community projects our club has been involved in. On January 19, 2004, the Club and individual Rotarians joined together to donate $55,000 toward the construction of The First Tee of Harrisonburg/Rotary Learning Center, located at Heritage Oaks, the City municipal golf course. The mission of The First Tee is: To impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf. The 9 Core Values of the First Tee: responsibility, sportsmanship, perseverance, confidence, judgment, honesty, respect, courtesy and integrity match up well with the Rotary 4-Way Test. The 9 healthy lifestyle habits taught by The First Tee are also consistent with Rotary efforts worldwide to better the health of families and communities. Programming is provided by The First Tee of Harrisonburg Foundation to city and county youth and beyond, ages 5 to 18. Specialized programming includes: (i) Breaking Barriers (a program for autistic youth), (ii) First Time Offenders (a program coordinated with the juvenile court to teach First Tee values to juvenile offenders), (iii) coordinated programs with Boys and Girls Club, and (iv) The First Tee National School Program (where golf and First Tee values are introduced into the physical education classes of local elementary and middle schools).
The Rotary Club of Harrisonburg Foundation held an annual Rotary Local Charities Golf Tournament for a number of years. This event has became one of the largest and most successful charity golf tournaments in Virginia. Charities and Agencies that have benefited from the golf tournament over the past few years are: A Dream Come True playground, Rebuilding Together, Explore More Children’s Museum, Harrisonburg Pregnancy Center, Harts, Massanutten Regional Library, Fairfield Center, First Step, Boys & Girls Club, Second Home, Salvation Army, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Friendship Industries, Generations Crossing and Shenandoah Valley Economic Education.
The club's major fund raiser golf tournament was replaced with an annual Strawberry Festival in 2015. Currently, proceeds from the festival are being used to help finance new parks in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. The Strawberry Festival is an annual event held in May of each year that needs your support so we can continue our important local work to make this a better community.
Clearly, the Harrisonburg Rotary Club has made a difference in the development and quality of life of in this area through its “Service Above Self” club members, who willingly donate their time, efforts and money to make the community a better place. You are what makes the civic organization of Rotary the best in the world and our club, in the minds of many, “the best in the Rotary District”.
Contributions from Ken McNulty and Tom Jackson. January 12, 2015