The Rotary Club of Greenville has made a lasting impact over 100 years
One hundred years ago, a group of mill owners discussed how they could start a business organization in Greenville to do more in the community.
“Even though they were competitors, they were all talking to each other,” said Don Koonce, current Rotary Club of Greenville president.
Some of the group visited the Atlanta Rotary Club Christmas party and decided they wanted to start a club in Greenville. On March 1, 1916, the charter was signed and 25 original members made up the 205th Rotary Club.
The Rotary Club of Greenville is the oldest and largest club in the state.
“Back in the day, if you wanted to do business in Greenville, you did two things, period,” Koonce said. “You joined the Chamber of Commerce and you joined Rotary.”
The Rotary Club of Greenville organized about a year before the U.S. entered World War I, and a charter project was helping create Camp Sevier, where more than 100,000 men eventually trained. Rotarian Joe Sirrine designed the camp and members contributed to the war effort by donating funds. The Rotary of Greenville even sponsored a Christmas party in 1917 for 20,000 soldiers.
Camp Sevier is also the site of the first serious influenza outbreak in South Carolina in 1918, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Koonce said because the outbreak happened while many nurses were overseas helping with the war, Rotarians stepped in to serve as nurses’ assistants, drive ambulances and organize sick wards.
During the influenza outbreak, indoor meetings were banned, so the club adapted. Members held a meeting on top of the Masonic Lodge, at the site where City Hall currently sits, Koonce said.
A long relationship with Furman University
Throughout the years, the club has been integral to the development of Furman University.
When William McGlothlin hesitated about taking the presidency in 1919, Rotarians agreed to raise $60,000 of the $80,000 needed for a new gymnasium for the school if McGlothlin agreed to accept the position, which he did.
Rotarians also raised funds for a football stadium, Manly Field, which was on the site of the current County Square.
The club’s relationship with Furman continues. On April 13, the club is going to host an international Peace and Conflict Resolution Seminar at the university’s Younts Conference Center.
Training future leaders at Camp Greenville
Since the beginning of the Greenville club, Koonce said, members wanted to help train young boys to be future leaders. That desire led to a partnership with the YMCA to establish Camp Greenville. Rotarians donated half of the startup costs for the camp and also gave money to build a dam and create Rotary Lake.
While Rotarians had also been involved in Camp Sevier, this was the first project where they “got their hands dirty and dug stumps,” Koonce said.
The Rotary Club of Greenville raises funds for projects several ways, but the biggest fundraiser annually is the Roper Mountain Holiday Lights. The Rotary club splits the profits each year with the Roper Mountain Science Center. The club uses the funds for local projects and scholarship grants.
According to the Holiday Lights website, the fundraiser has brought in more than $2 million dollars for the community since 1992.
Greenville Rotary members also contribute to the main Rotary International initiative to eradicate polio worldwide. They are also involved in other international projects such as helping malnourished families in Haiti.
A century of progress
As the Greenville has changed, “our whole attitude and character has changed,” Koonce said.
“In ’88 the glass ceiling was broken and we added females,” Koonce said.
The first women members were artist Jeanet Dreskin and Virginia Uldrick, founder of the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. The first female president was Beth Padgett, a former Greenville News editor, in 2001.
“I don’t know where Rotary would be without women,” said Greenville City Councilman George Fletcher, a past president of the Rotary Club of Greenville.
The club has about 270 members, Koonce said, and recently has seen an increase in younger members, who are able to add fresh ideas.
“The club is getting younger, that’s the exciting part,” Koonce said.