Members of the original Rotary Club in Victoria pose for a photo in the Empress Hotel during the inaugural luncheon in 1913. The Victoria club ultimately spawned 10 others in the Capital Region.

A century of service above self

On Nov. 15 the Rotary Club of Victoria will celebrate its 100th anniversary with a gala dinner

The venerable Union Club downtown seems the most suitable place to hold a meeting of the Rotary Club of Victoria.

Long a gathering place for the city’s movers and shakers, the tradition-steeped facility is, on this day, hosting a special lunch meeting for an organization that celebrates its 100th birthday next month.

Current Rotary president Murray Ramsbottom, a cordial former brigadier general in the Canadian Air Force, runs the meeting in the casual military style of the CAF, overseeing the playing of O Canada and God Save the Queen. The ceremonial tunes are sandwiched around the honouring of more than 20 past-presidents, most of whom sit at a separate table.

If this sounds like an old boys’ network, it’s because it is, to a degree.

The long-standing barrier preventing women from becoming full members of Rotary International, rather than separated into women’s sub-chapters, was only broken down in the late 1980s.

In reality, women have played key roles throughout the decades on many Rotary fundraising projects.

Among the new guard is Rosalind Scott, the gregarious Better Business Bureau of Vancouver Island president and CEO, whose one-year term as Victoria Rotary president ended earlier this year. Known for running a tight meeting and getting things done, her nomination to the top job – she was the second woman in the role after Carol Livingstone in 2010-11 –  came as a surprise to her.

“I thought I was not in Rotary long enough to be considered for president,” she says. “I was taken aback and really honoured.”

Regardless of gender, this is a tight-knit bunch. When Scott was sick at home a while back, fellow club members came to check in on her.

“It’s a lot more than just the fundraising,” she says. “Rotarians are like family.”

Stu McGowan, another former brigadier general, was president in 2000-01 and has mentored all presidents since.

He also holds the unofficial title of club historian. He has pored through 500,000 pages of archival material over the past two years to document the club’s 100-year history and paint a picture of the people who have served in its ranks.

“We’ve got guys who have been around for 60 years,” he says, adding casually, “Victoria Rotary Club spurred all the other in Greater Victoria.”

Thumbing through a draft copy of the book McGowan has compiled, one finds annual listings of club activities big and small, from entering floats in parades and hosting joint meetings with U.S. Rotarians, to contributing tens of thousands of dollars for such projects as Queen Alexandra Solarium, Boys and Girls Club and, most recently, $50,000 to Cool Aid’s Downtown Activity Centre.

The biographies of every club president are also listed.

“In the first 50 years, the Rotary Club of Victoria had a huge influence in the development of the city,” McGowan says. “It really was a who’s who of Victoria, with mayors and business owners.”

Without having to read much between the lines, the well-researched history book offers a clear sense that camaraderie and working toward common goals have been central to Rotary’s impressive list of community accomplishments.

McGowan reels off some notable projects spearheaded by Victoria Rotarians: the tourism publicity bureau (now Tourism Victoria, began funding 1916, built building in 1947), Uplands Golf Club (1920s), the Malahat Fountain near Mill Bay (built 1924, refurbished 2013), Goodwill Enterprises (initiated 1959, building built on Bay Street 1965-66), flowering trees on Songhees Road (1989), Rotary House for low-income families (1993), Rotary International centennial welcome garden at Ogden Point (2005).

Family and community have long been major considerations in the operations of this Rotary Club, the oldest of 11 in Greater Victoria.

Fundraising efforts have largely benefitted children’s charities and organizations, as well as groups considered under-represented. Then and now, Victoria Rotary is part social club, part mentorship and part community building, all under the umbrella concept of working to make the city a better place to live.

“We try to have fun and get the job done,” says Ramsbottom, who joined the club five years ago. He found the Victoria Rotary crowd to be “warm and generous; an inviting group of people” who were willing to offer plenty of support, especially when he assumed the role of president.

Scott echoes that sentiment, saying she felt lucky to have so many resources at her disposal.

“The talent, knowledge and experience in that room is incredible,” she says.

While club members enjoy working together, their motto of “Service Before Self” is evident from the way their generosity extends outward to the community they serve.

The club has guest representatives from agencies across the community speak every Thursday at the Union Club. While Rotary as a group may not always choose to support them financially, Scott says, “Quietly behind the scenes there’s a lot of cheques written.”

While Ramsbottom has been struck by the dedication of club members and their willingness to engage in fundraising for other organizations, most here seem driven by the same end result, he says.

“The icing on the cake is seeing the gratitude of agencies we support, from the Mustard Seed to the Rainbow Kitchen. It gives us a tremendous amount of satisfaction.”

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