Rotary Club of Rockford Celebrates 100 Years of 'Service Above Self'

Rockford Rotary Club’s standard of truth, fairness, fellowship and goodwill for all has stood the test of time. Take a look at how this club allows members to ‘think globally, act locally.’

Whether setting up filtered water plants for hurricane victims, getting school supplies to children, educating people in Malaysia about nutrition, providing college scholarships to local students, or working to eradicate polio, there are Rotarians involved.
Rotary International is a worldwide organization with 1.2 million members in about 35,000 clubs. When it formed in 1916, Rockford Rotary Club was the 239th Rotary club. Today, more than 200 members in three Rotary clubs meet in Cherry Valley, Loves Park and Rockford. The Rotarian motto is “Service Above Self” and every project must pass a four-way test of promoting truth, fairness, friendship and goodwill for all.
“Being of service is what we’re all about,” says Mike Donnelly, past president of the Rockford Rotary Club and longtime Rotarian. “Everything we do is about promoting peace and the betterment of humankind everywhere. Our club is an undercurrent for good. We have weekly meetings and quietly go about our business of community service, always looking for ways to improve our community and help to develop our youth through leadership programs.”
On June 15, 1916, 63 men met at the Nelson Hotel and signed the club charter. That event was celebrated June 15 with the public dedication of a Rotary Labyrinth on the corner of West State and Avon streets. Afterward, Jennifer Jones, a director of Rotary International, spoke to Rotarians during a dinner at Mauh-Nah-Tee-See Country Club.
The Rotary Labyrinth is 24 feet wide, with an 8-foot-wide granite medallion featuring the “Service Above Self” Rotary motto at its center. It’s landscaped with plants, lights and benches; pavers can be purchased to honor someone. Each bench communicates one of the four-way test concepts. Rotarians worked with the City of Rockford and the Rockford Park District to come up with a design and location.
“The labyrinth will serve as an area of peace and inspiration along the West State Street Linear Park,” says Tom Michalowski, past president of Rockford Rotary and chairman of the 100-year celebration. “We want the community to be excited about this project and to know it belongs to them as a place to walk, think or just sit and be at peace.”
Michalowski was president of Rockford Rotary when the idea germinated. He’s also a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a former aerospace executive who worked at Sundstrand in the mid 1990s. He felt strongly about what he wanted to accomplish for the city.
“There was some controversy on where the labyrinth should be located, but we chose the west side because we’re all about leading and we want to see the west side revitalized in downtown Rockford,” he says. “As we talked about doing something, I became more and more dedicated to the issues facing our city and was determined to do something to unify this community, and this is one way to do it.”
The dedication ceremony featured Chamber of Commerce President Einar Forsman as the master of ceremonies. He recognized Rotary officers and members, elected officials and other dignitaries. Mayor Larry Morrissey and Rockford Park District Board President Ian Linnabary were featured guests.
The $79,000 project was totally funded by local Rotarians, with the largest single donation of $35,000 from one family.
Russ Johansson, current president and local business owner, has been a Rotarian since 1987. When he moved to Rockford from Detroit, where he was born and raised, his father encouraged him to join the service club to meet people and learn about his new community.
In his year as president, he’s helped to pull together 100th anniversary plans, a process that began three years ago. He’s also worked to set a vision for the future of the club by making it easier for people to join. The club structure has been relaxed, more types of membership are available and the club is reaching out to young people.
“There are a lot of tools through the internet that can help Rotary Clubs everywhere with their organization and membership,” says Johansson. “These tools will make a difference in what the club of the future will look like and we have to embrace the change.”
That change begins at home.
“Now that we’re part of the Ellis Heights neighborhood, we must engage the neighborhood’s youth in using and maintaining the labyrinth,” he says. “We have a physical presence now and my hope is that the area can be a future meeting place for groups from the area and that we can build even more activities around the site.”
For example, Rockford Rotary is in the process of getting a grant to purchase books for a reading program that could be held at the Rotary Labyrinth Center during summer months.
Along with many other things, the Rockford Rotary Club is known for its college scholarship programs, eighth-grade Rotary Academy leadership training program, Rockford Reads sponsorship for second graders, and for getting Rockford designated as a City of Peace by the International Cities of Peace Organization in Dayton, Ohio.
Nancy Kalchbrenner, immediate past president of Rockford Rotary, served on the centennial committee.
“We knew we wanted something that could be used by people and would last,” she says. “The more we found out about the West State Street Corridor Project, the more we got excited about being a partner. We wanted to contribute to the development and revitalization of the west side of Rockford.”
Meanwhile, the former Rockford School Board president is leading a committee that reaches out to churches, community groups and Ellis Heights area residents, inviting them to the dedication, helping them get to know Rockford Rotary, and seeking their input on how the community will use the space.
The Rockford Park District will maintain the site, with help from Rotarians and community members, including members of The Rotary Academy Program, a leadership-training program for local eighth graders.
A Rotarian for eight years, Kalchbrenner got acquainted with Rockford Rotary when the club invited her to speak at a meeting. Someone invited her to join and she felt it was a good fit for her.
“I enjoyed the camaraderie I saw among the people in the room and their emphasis on service and supporting humanitarian causes in the community and around the world,” says Kalchbrenner. “I embrace the concept of ‘think globally, act locally,’ and you can do both at Rotary.”
Like so many other service organizations, the group struggles to attract and retain members, given the aging U.S. population and the frantic pace of activity in today’s families. Kalchbrenner hopes that recent innovations in how to be involved, such as starting up neighborhood or work-based groups, will enable people who want to join.
Some people have a passion for serving that won’t stop.
Jim Nelson, a Rotarian for 33 years, is a Rotary District Governor who has traveled the world to attend Rotary International conventions and to serve. He was one of eight Rotarians scheduled to attend a “friendship exchange” in Pakistan this past March. Despite stern warnings not to put their personal safety at risk in that part of the world, Nelson and four others went ahead with their plans.
Two hours after Nelson’s group left the city of Lahore, Pakistan, 72 people were killed in an Easter suicide bombing. Terrorist threats caused the cancellation of a Rotary meeting in the capital city of Islamabad as well as plans to help immunize children against polio. Nelson says he went ahead with his plans because the group was there to meet with other Rotarians and he felt they would be in good hands.
“They treated us royally,” he says. “We saw many historical places, lots of mosques, and went to a Rotary convention in Lahore,” he says. In April, Rotarians from Pakistan were in northern Illinois to attend a Rotary conference in the Chicago area and visit neighboring cities.
A former boss urged Nelson to join Rotary, early in his advertising career, to help him connect with people in the community. Later, Nelson’s daughter was chosen to be a Rotary exchange student in Sweden. After retiring from his advertising career, Nelson stayed involved with Rotary.
“It’s the best decision I ever made,” he says. “Rotary put me into contact with so many wonderful people and so many wonderful causes in our community and the world. It’s just a great organization and I’m proud to be a part of it. We make a difference wherever we go.”
Nelson went to Nigeria in 2008 to help eradicate polio; the effort has since been deemed successful in that country. Rockford Rotary’s first female president, Elise Cadigan, organized the trip, which included Michalowski, other club members and several health care professionals who were not Rotary members. In 2005, Nelson went on a medical mission to El Salvador. Local Rotarians also went to Guatemala in 2012 to assist in water and sanitation projects.
Here at home, Rockford Rotary is working to build future leaders. Now in its 14th year, Rotary Academy partners with Rockford Public Schools, YMCA, Rockford University and Rock Valley College to provide 230 eighth-grade students, selected by teachers and counselors, with leadership development opportunities. The students are chosen for their good academic performance, attendance and conduct. Preference is given to those with leadership potential who are not serving in any leadership roles.
Rotary Academy activities promote team building, problem solving, communication, conflict resolution, personal growth and goal setting. Monthly activities include things like the YMCA high ropes course at Camp Winnebago, etiquette lessons, community service projects and visits to Rockford University and Rock Valley College. Rockford Rotary funds the program and supplies an advisor at each middle school to work with the students.
Linda L. Johnson, who will become the next president of Rockford Rotary on July 1, is a retired speech pathologist at Rockford School District. She volunteered to be a Rotary Academy advisor and supervises the other advisors. The program began in three middle schools and has grown to include all seven in Rockford.
Johnson is passionate about the Rotary Academy and, as club president, wants to expand the concept into the high schools.
“All these kids have leadership potential but are not using it,” she says. “The Academy helps them to step out of their comfort zones to get involved and give back to their community. We want to open their eyes to possibilities by giving them opportunities that allow them to demonstrate their talents in a non-academic environment. They discover strengths that don’t show up in the classroom. Research has shown that if kids have a goal, they’re much more likely to graduate from high school and have a career.”
The results are impressive.
“What I hear from parents is that their kids have developed the courage to do more with their lives, have discovered skills they didn’t know they had, and have learned the benefits of getting to know people they otherwise wouldn’t have interacted with in their own circle of friends,” says Johnson. “The hope is that some of these students will come back and serve as leaders in our community.”
Melinda Lawlor is a Thurgood Marshall School Counselor and has been a Rotary Academy advisor for four years.
Academy students are known for their service and are often called upon to help wherever volunteers are needed within the school, she says. The students have helped with book fairs, reading programs, tests and competitions.
Lawlor encourages students to use a computer program to keep track of all activities they participate in so they can use that information when applying for jobs, scholarships or college admission.
“All the community service activities the kids have been involved in will help them to be looked upon more favorably,” says Lawlor. “Eighth graders are capable of developing strong values and strong character. When given the opportunity to develop themselves, it can spark personal growth, insight, sensitivity toward others and good judgment.”
Nicole Luster, an Eisenhower Middle School counselor and first-time Rotary Academy advisor, recently watched students participate in a day of learning at Rockford University. The transformation she saw in students impressed her.
“I’ve seen kids grow in many ways,” she says. “Some of them start out shy and have social challenges; it’s been great to watch them come out of their shells, and to discover the benefits of working as a team. They exhibit a sense of pride and confidence with improved social skills.”
The students see value in the program, too.
Doris Wilson Russo, 13, is an eighth-grade student at Eisenhower who is in Rotary Academy this year. She signed up because she expected to learn new skills, make new friends and overall become a better person. The experience has far exceeded her expectations.
“The program is very organized, with a lot of fun activities,” she says. Her favorite one was spending the day at Rockford University learning about college life and careers.
Russo plans to attend the University of Illinois and major in medicine. The academy has helped her to discover how much she likes working with children, so she’s thinking of becoming a pediatrician.
“The academy just gave me so many good experiences, more confidence, and helped me to express myself,” says Russo. “I would encourage anyone to do it.”
Those who wish to learn more about the “Service Above Self” lifestyle of Rotary International are invited to attend Rockford Rotary at noon on any Thursday, September through June, at Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St.