Get to know the ‘The World’s Greatest Rotary Club’ Champaign club membership reached a high of 260 when the county had just three Rotary clubs. Today there are seven clubs, and WGRC membership is 160
Paul Harris and three Chicago friends could never have envisioned that their decision in 1905 to form a fellowship would result in service to humanity by 1.2 million Rotarians in 35,000 clubs worldwide. Nor could the 24 Champaign business and civic leaders who convened at the Beardsley Hotel in December 1916 have foreseen that their new Rotary Club, chartered the following February, would become one of Rotary International’s most honoured clubs.
In May, 1917, a tornado devastated Mattoon, killing 80 and destroying 500 homes. Immediately, the fledgling Champaign Rotary Club (Illinois, US, District 6490), mounted a relief train bearing doctors, nurses, policemen, food, blankets, tents, clothing and medical supplies. The train arrived in Mattoon just five hours after the tornado’s strike— the first help to reach the ravaged city. The club would pursue this pattern of community service for another 100 years.
Post-World War I, Champaign Rotary adopted a policy of providing seed money and short term help to worthy organisations, spreading resources over a wider spectrum of local causes while lending repeated support to select groups. Among many, Champaign Rotary boosted hospital drives, Boy and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, programmes for children, and the Salvation Army and United Way’s forerunners.
After WWII, Rotary International’s Foundation launched two key initiatives to fund major humanitarian programmes abroad. One asked each club member to contribute $10, with recognition to clubs with 100% participation. Of thousands of clubs, Champaign Rotary was the first to 100%. In 1947, the foundation established Paul Harris Fellowships honoring anyone donating $1,000. Champaign Rotary boasts more than 500 fellows. During his post war service as editor of The Fizz, the club’s award-winning weekly bulletin, Dean McCumber coined the term WGRC to label Champaign Rotary “The World’s Greatest Rotary Club” — partly in humorous hyperbole and partly in pride. The moniker stuck.
Frank Clark, the club’s founding president, was succeeded by Albert Eisner, Sr, who served two years — the only two-term president in the club’s history. A half-century later, Bobby Eisner, Jr became a third-generation club president and, in 1999, Nina Wanchic Eisner made it four generations of club presidents named Eisner. Nina was the second of women presidents. Janice Bahr was first. On July 1, Connie Walsh will become the seventh. Rotary International did not admit women until 1988, and it Bonnie Kelley who broke WGRC’s gender barrier.
WGRC’s membership reached a high of 260 when the county had just three Rotary Clubs. Today there are seven clubs, and WGRC membership is 160. Seven Champaign Rotarians have served as District 6490 Governor, perhaps none more dynamically than Frank D Keck II. But the most honoured of all Champaign Rotarians was the late Arthur J Skelton. Known throughout the District as ‘Mr Rotary’, Skelton won every possible award, from the District Hall of Honour to the ultimate prize from Rotary International, the Service Above Self Award.
The Club’s triennial “Action Auctions” have raised more $700,000 for worthy causes including Frances Nelson Health Center, Developmental Services Center, Boy Scouts, Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, Community Schools Foundation, Crisis Nursery, and CASA.
The Interact Club at Centennial High School, launched in 1978, has logged an astounding 3,865 service hours and created Austin’s Day of Service, now embraced by the community at large. Recently, WGRC established an Early Act Club for 4th and 5th graders at Garden Hills Elementary — another District first.
WGRC has been a strong player in RF’s international initiatives to alleviate disease and hunger. In 1987, the RF launched its $120 million PolioPlus program to eradicate polio globally. WGRC was one of nine Rotary Clubs tabbed as “Model Clubs” to set a benchmark for others. Assigned a goal of $120,000, project chair Scott Anderson, Sr spearheaded a drive that soared past $200,000.
Today, WGRC’s members lend more time and energy to hands-on projects: reading to children, assembling backpacks for the homeless, improving local park facilities, cleaning Mattis Avenue and the Boneyard, bolstering Habitat for Humanity, and the ambitious commitment to replace hundreds of trees in Gifford destroyed by the 2013 tornado.
Throughout its 100 years, Champaign Rotarians have seldom fallen short of their goal: to be the District’s highest-achieving club. The path to this goal was widened in 2001, when Champaign Rotary received a $1,000,000+ endowment from the estate of long-time Clifford Jacobs Chairman Joseph Cannon. This gift empowers WGRC to be a major provider of financial grants to deserving organisations and causes for the foreseeable future.