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Patricia Slater and Lauren Glynn at the Rotary Club of Cooperstown’s 2023 Election Day Pancake Breakfast Fundraiser. (Photo by Tom Russo)

Rotary Club of Cooperstown Celebrates 100th Anniversary

By ELIZABETH COOPER
COOPERSTOWN

Have you ever sat for a moment and enjoyed a sunny afternoon on a bench in the little park at the corner of Pioneer and Main?

If so, you can thank the Rotary Club of Cooperstown.

The local branch of the organization, which just entered its 100th year, was instrumental in the effort to create Pioneer Park after a 1961 fire destroyed the buildings there.

Rotary’s international student exchange program is more widely known, but the club has quietly fostered countless local projects that area residents may enjoy without realizing how they came to be.

“It’s a local service club focused on the community,” Cooperstown Rotary Club Board President Ellen Pope said. “But there is a strong belief that you need to be connected to others around the world, so there is less of a fear of the other and more of a sense that we are all one community.”

Rotary encourages its members to ask themselves four essential questions about anything they do: Is it the truth? Is it fair? Is it beneficial? And, will it build goodwill and better friendships?

The club’s motto is “Service above self.”

To live out those values, members are encouraged to volunteer their time and contribute financially to good causes if they can—both locally and internationally.

Today there are more than 46,000 Rotary Clubs worldwide. The organization helped fund and organize the push to eradicate polio decades ago, and continues to support initiatives relating to everything from education to health to the environment. Promoting peace is a central goal.

Cooperstown’s Rotary club was the 1,594th ever created. In recent years, they have helped fund the new surgical wing at the Susquehanna SPCA and bought air purifiers for a senior center so the elderly could more safely gather during COVID. They give to the local food pantry on an ongoing basis and helped fund a handicapped accessible fishing pier at Three Mile Point. And that’s just the past few years.

Many of the historical signs in the Village of Cooperstown explaining the significance of certain landmarks were also commissioned by Rotary. An annual Susquehanna River clean-up is jointly sponsored by Rotary and the local Lions Club.

But perhaps Cooperstown Rotary is best known for sponsoring the international youth exchange program for local students.

An average of two local high-school students head abroad for a year to live and attend school, and about the same number from other countries come here.

These initiatives are funded both by the individual contributions of Rotarians and through events such as the annual Election Day pancake breakfast.

There are currently 84 Cooperstown Rotarians. They meet weekly for lunch to plan initiatives and update one another on progress. The luncheons often feature a speaker on a topic of interest, as well as announcements and even some singing.

100 Acts of Kindness

In honor of the 100th anniversary, members of the Rotary Club of Cooperstown are each trying to engage in 100 acts of kindness per month. This month, members are going into Cooperstown Elementary School to read books to children. Other acts of kindness planned include donating loaves of bread to the food bank, donating school supplies, donating nutritional beverages to a cancer center, and donating hats and mittens.

Joan Badgley joined Rotary in 1990, having been sponsored by her husband, Ed Badgley. She is still involved and feels the club has an important role to play.

“I think it’s the camaraderie of people getting together to do good, not just in the community, but in the United States and the world,” she said.

How It All Began

The first Rotary club was formed in 1905 in Chicago by a group of four businessmen who wanted to meet regularly in the interest of camaraderie and civic service, local Rotarian Ellen Tillapaugh said. They soon convened a larger group with the hope of attracting one person from each of a range of professions. They agreed to meet at a different member’s office each time, hence the name Rotary.

The idea was such a good one that by 1921 there were Rotary clubs on six continents and 100,000 people counted themselves as members. It was around that time that a group of Cooperstown businessmen began thinking about forming their own Rotary club. There was already one in Oneonta, so that club could serve as their required sponsor.

On January 14, 1924, the inaugural meeting of the Cooperstown Rotary Club was held at the New Fenimore Hotel on the corner of Chestnut and Main streets, where the Cooper Inn now stands.

The names on that first roster of members would be familiar to anyone who has roots in Cooperstown. They include Augur, Bissell, Bresee, Ellsworth, Lippitt, MacEwan, Smalley and more. The members worked together to raise funds to pay for dental work, eye care and even operations for needy children. They used their own expertise and resources to provide services and raise money. They held dramatic performances and grew Christmas trees to bring in money, and reached into their own pockets, Tillapaugh said.

Cooperstown Rotarians helped support Boy and Girl scout troops and 4-H. A lot of fun was had along the way. For a period, Rotary hosted an annual party for 4-H children and their animals. Rotary also held Christmas and Halloween parties for as many as 800 children at Smalley’s Theater.

Like many clubs of their kind, Rotary clubs did not admit women until a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1988 that made the practice illegal. Tillapaugh and Badgley were among the first women to join locally.

CCS junior Mia Kaltenbach with her European Handball Team from Genthin, Germany. Kaltenbach spent time in Germany as a Rotary-sponsored exchange student. (Photo provided)
Rotary Exchange

Since 1963, Rotary International has sponsored an exchange program for high-school students from around the world, and the Rotary Club of Cooperstown has been involved from the beginning.

“It’s one of our most active programs,” Tillapaugh said. “Peace through understanding really is a main focus of the club.”

There is no record of how many local students have done the program, or how many have come here from other places, she said. Generally, about two students a year go away and two international students come here, but numbers vary.

Mia Kaltenbach on her Germany Rotary Tour. (Photo provided)

Cooperstown Central School junior Mia Kaltenbach, 17, did the program as a sophomore and said she would highly recommend it.

“It really showed me how vast and wide it is out there,” she said, adding that she had been to Peru, where her mother is from, but never to Europe.

“It really broadened my horizons,” Kaltenbach said.

Being away from her family for 11 months also taught Kaltenbach important lessons about taking responsibility and advocating for herself, she said.

“It showed me what it was to live on your own and how you need to be as a sole human,” she elaborated.

Kaltenbach was placed in the German village of Genthin, a small town about an hour from Berlin. She said it was hard to leave when her stay ended because the relationships she made there were so meaningful.

Tillapaugh said it’s common for friendships made during Rotary exchanges to last a lifetime.

Tillapaugh’s parents hosted international students when she was a child, and she and her husband, Gary Kuch, had done the same when they were raising their family. Her daughters went abroad with the program as well. The Tillapaughs are still in touch with many of the people they met and members of families who hosted their daughters had even traveled here to attend their weddings.

“We have stayed very connected,” Tillapaugh said.

Rotary exchanges do more than forge relationships. Badgley said her daughter’s experience as an exchange student helped guide her interest in working with immigrant populations in Washington, D.C.

“There are a lot of great stories about what road people took afterward,” Badgley added.

Looking for Members

The Rotary Club of Cooperstown isn’t just looking back at its last 100 years. It’s looking ahead to the next.

Maintaining a strong membership is paramount, Pope emphasized.

“We need people,” she said.

Like clubs and volunteer organizations across the country, Rotary is having trouble recruiting its next generation of members. With the demands of today’s society, everything from volunteer fire departments to local planning boards are in the same position.

“How do you recruit new members and make it relevant? There are just so many things that are competing for time and attention,” Pope said. “It’s not just going to lunch once a week, it’s doing things. We have to get folks who are interested and want to do hands-on activities to improve their community, and that’s a big challenge.”

About Becoming a Member

There are some obligations for Rotarians, but the sense of camaraderie and fulfillment are more than worth it, members said.

Here are the membership requirements:

  • Dues: $140.00/year.
  • Luncheons: There is no attendance requirement, and you can bring your own food if you wish. If you opt for the catered meal, this year’s cost is $19.00.
  • Members are expected to dedicate time to causes including the Election Day pancake fundraiser.

If you are interested, e-mail rotaryclubcooperstown@gmail.com or find Rotary Club of Cooperstown on Facebook.

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