Those four questions are the standard by which the Rotary Club of Key West has measured itself by for the past 100 years. Designated the “Four Way Test,” Rotary clubs all over the world adhere to the common creed. Yet for the historic Key West faction, it has been a defining doctrine for a group that’s history and influences are interwoven into the fabric of a community.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the club and on April 1, the organization will host its Centennial Gala to honor their founders, while carrying forward the torch of ambassadorship and service.
“This is a celebration with the young guard honoring the old guard,” said Rachel Oropeza, who was bestowed the honor of being named the club’s 100th President in 2015.
As a female member, Oropeza is also a symbolic testament to the progressive nature of a club that emerged alongside a city embracing tolerance, equality and humanity. Additionally, she honors the strides made by Elizabeth Freeman, the club’s first female member, along with Karen Thurman, who served as the club’s first female President (there have been five since).
Today, the local organization is comprised of 120 devoted civic-minded men and women, all working towards the advancement and quality of the community. Not only does Rotary support local projects, like free dental care for children in need and local scholarships; they also contribute to Rotary International through contributions and volunteer efforts.
“Rotary broadens your perspective,” said Alton Weekley (President 1987-88). “When you consider the efforts we’ve made to eradicate polio or assist countries like Haiti in a time of need, it’s important that people recognize what we do on a local level can impact people all around the world.”
During the past century, the Key West Rotary Club has molded the Southernmost City and the Florida Keys by immeasurable proportions. Constituted on growing need for community service and unity, it is unlikely the founding members could have envisioned how their contributions would affect the contemporary economy and social spheres of Key West.
The goal of any Rotary club is to provide humanitarian service to their communities and throughout the world, while fostering peace and goodwill to any person of any age, gender or race. And on April 1st, 1916 the first Key West President, Jefferson Browne (attorney and future Florida Supreme Court Justice) gathered 26 prominent businessmen in Key West and formed the International Association of Rotary Clubs.
Doctors, lawyers, grocers, realtors, bankers, newspapermen, and timely, railway and tobacco men, saw a common need that could only be fulfilled through a unified effort to give back—without seeking recognition or thanks.
“It is humbling to be a part of such an amazing history,” said George Galvin (President 2004). “There is no substitute for the friendships and the relationships you can make when serving with men and women on projects.”
One of the club’s initial contributions came in 1917 with an initiative to bring the American Red Cross to Key West. In addition, the club provided care for Merchant Marines and Naval Veterans, helped clear and establish Bayview Park in 1922 and they contributed to the original “Parade of Palms” along Roosevelt in 1971. Even today the club helps fund trees and gardens at our local museums and schools.
“A number of organizations around Key West exist because Rotarians either brought them about or heavily supported them,” said Alton Weekley. “The Key West Library and the Chamber of Commerce are both great testaments to Rotary.”
In 1925 the group backed a conservation proposal to ban shooting and trapping birds, along with protecting Key Deer —the same law that exists today. In 1934 Edward Strunk, Jr. encouraged the club to write Florida’s congress supporting the establishment of the Everglades National Park.
After the hurricane of 1936, at the behest of Bascom Grooms and Edward Strunk, Jr., Rotary was instrumental in clearing the bridges for cars after the railroad was demolished.
And in 1947, Merili Hilton, later wife of Mayor Sonny McCoy, was the first high school senior to receive a Rotary sponsorship for school. Today, the KWRC gives $40,000 in scholarships each year to local students.
“When I was installed as President in 2009 it was 82 years to the day that my Great Grandfather served in the same position,” said Bascom Grooms. “The purpose behind what we do is genuine, especially when we deliver food on Thanksgiving, help kids with dental needs or award thousands in scholarships to local students.”
This Rotary Club was sponsored by the chapter in Tampa, and in turn spawned two more clubs in the Keys — the Marathon Rotary Club and the Key West Sunrise Rotary Club. (There’s also a Sunset Rotary Club in Key West, making three.)
A century later, the disposition of the club remains true to its diverse history with over 100 members from all sectors and vocations of Key West. Today’s Rotary looks much like it did one hundred years ago with one big exception.
While the Ladies Guild provided 50-cent lunches to the Rotarian businessmen in the 1930’s, now a woman presides over lunch, while dozens of others participate in leadership roles.
“Rotary constantly teaches me to be humble and kind,” said Jessica Cranney, who is one the club’s most active ambassadors. “And when you get out there and volunteer, you really get to see the difference an organization can make both locally and world-wide.”
On April 1, the club hosts its Centennial Gala to honor their founders, while carrying the torch of ambassadorship and service into another century. Undoubtedly, the spirit of some of Key West’s most inspiring pioneers will be shining down, as the club’s motto, “Service Above Self,” continues to thrive in the Southernmost City.
For more on Rotary’s Centennial Gala and how to become involved, visit: www.keywestrotary.com.