February 1, 1920, is a date still remembered in the history of Brookings: on that day the Rotary Club of Brookings was granted membership in Rotary International. (The club’s charter was not officially conferred until March 18, 1920.) 

Present at the creation and listed as charter members were 21 men representing a wide range of vocations: included were a physician and surgeon, a dentist, a lumberyard manager, a college president, a newspaper publisher and an investment banker.

One hundred years later, in noting Brookings Rotary Club’s keeping with Rotary International’s dedication to “service above self,” both South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Brookings Mayor Keith Corbett signed proclamations naming Feb. 1, 2020, “Brookings Rotary Club Day.”  

While the Brookings club – one of many that circle the globe and make up Rotary International – would continue to increase its numbers, it would be well into the second half of the 20th century before the club admitted a woman as a member: Sandra Norlin, director of the Brookings Public Library, in 1987.

Several of the club’s present Rotarians were there for that watershed moment. Among them were a trio that today have been members for 60-plus years: Richard Wahlstrom, Robert “Bob” Fishback and Ron Peterson; Lewayne Erickson, a member for 50-plus years and president at the time; and Van D. Fishback, a member since the late 1970s. The Fishbacks are brothers and nephews of Van Fishback, the investment banker who was a charter member.

Wahlstrom also served from 1979 to 1980 as district governor for 45 Rotary Clubs in South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa.

The road for women to join Rotary – and other service clubs – had been paved on May 4, 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-0 that Rotary clubs in the United States must be open to membership for women. However, it would be 1989 before Rotary International’s Council on Legislation voted to admit women into clubs worldwide.

A life-changing experience

Television producer Ginger Thomson, the first woman to take the helm as president of Brookings Rotary Club, had her introduction to Rotary before she joined.

“I was first introduced to Rotary through the Rotary Group Study Exchange Program of the Rotary Foundation,” she explained. “Every year they would send a team of young professionals to another Rotary district in the world and then that district would send a team over to ours.

“In 1989 we went to India. We spent six weeks learning about the culture, learning about our careers, sharing goals and learning about the world. We could share that information with others with the long-term goal of furthering world peace; so that people could learn about other cultures.

“It was a life-changing experience. I met Mother Teresa when I was in Calcutta, had my picture taken with her. It was amazing. That changed my life.

“A few months (in 1989) after I returned, I became a Rotarian – one of the first women Rotarians in the club. I eventually became the first woman president, in 1999.”

Thomson’s stint as president came 12 years after Norlin became the first woman to be accepted for membership in the Brookings Rotary Club. As the club celebrates its centenary, it again has a woman at the helm: Jennifer Soma, now in her third year as a Rotarian, is the seventh woman to serve as president.

“I joined for the camaraderie, but I’m staying because of the service projects,” she said. She added, “Our mission is ‘service above self.’ We’re always looking for what we can do above and beyond.

“We say every Tuesday The Four-Way Test of the things we think, say or do: 1. Is it the truth? 2. Is it fair to all concerned? 3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”

Service locally, internationally

“We talk about what we do,” Soma explained. “Everybody has a story on how they give back or how they’re always looking to help others. For the general good of the community, in Brooking Rotary we do a service project every month.”

At the local level, Brookings Rotarians have volunteered for such events as helping with the Brookings Marathon, at the Boys & Girls Cub, and in the Brookings Youth Mentoring Program. 

Soma cited project efforts that included: “The Brain Game: Fun Ways to Help Your Baby’s Mind Grow,” a book provided, via a grant to the Brookings Health System Foundation, to the Brookings hospital for newborn babies; the Boulevard Project, that involves the placement of trees; the Rotary Garden at McCrory Gardens, planted to resemble the Rotary Club symbol, with raised planting surrounded with poplar trees and benches; during summer months, containers of colorful annual mixtures are placed around the perimeter; and a partnership with United Way on “the born learning trail,” that will be installed in the spring.

“Any program or any service club here in town that’s looking for extra help, we’re usually willing to help do whatever they need to get things done,” Soma explained.

She also noted that for its 100th anniversary, Brookings Rotary has purchased a clock that will be installed by May 17 for a big gala downtown on Main Avenue. 

Add to local service efforts some projects pursued under the umbrella of Rotary International.

A major project worked on over the years was bringing solar ovens to Haiti. Van Fishback, Wahlstrom and other Brookings Rotarians played a key role.

“The ovens we distributed were in the thousands,” Fishback explained. “It was hard work, because a lot of the materials were assembled here. We did a lot of the actual work locally in a warehouse here.

“We put quite a bit of effort into it, not only money but science to make it an effective tool that is going to last. Unfortunately, if it’s made of too flimsy materials, it doesn’t last.”

Fishback has made a total of about 10 trips to Haiti: “Not always for Rotary International; I’ve also gone for the church.”

He stressed that “most of the work (on the solar ovens) needs to happen here in Brookings. That’s where this club has to do the work. Not everybody has the time or interest in going to Haiti.”

Also referencing the international scope, Erickson said the club’s “biggest longstanding project” came about 1987, when it donated about $17,000 to Rotary International, which put up $225 million in a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help eradicate polio. In 1985, Rotary International had launched PolioPlus.  The concerted campaign by an alliance of international agencies proved very successful and is still ongoing. Brookings Rotary continues to support eradication of polio.

Today there remain only a few cases of polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a newspaper article about a year ago, the British newspaper The Guardian blamed those few cases on “unchecked borders.”

Finally, the club sponsors a student at the School of St. Jude in Tanzania, Africa.

The Brookings Rotary Club meets from noon-1 p.m. every Tuesday at the Brookings Activity Center.

Contact John Kubal at jkubal@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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