Ninty one years ago, Alfred A. Stein, later to be Mayor of Elizabeth, and Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, called together about 20 business and professional men to meet with him at the local Elks Club. His objective was to organize the Rotary Club of Elizabeth.
There was much going on in the world of 1917. In March of that year America joined the growing war in Europe. In Russia the monk Rasputin, the power behind the Czarist throne was assassinated, and the Czar and his family were executed. A strange body of men arose in Russia and became know as Bolsheviks. The glamorous spy, Mata Hari, was executed but not before she gave away invaluable military secrets to the German government. Babe Ruth was a promising young player in the Boston lineup, and Charlie Chaplin received the world's first million dollar acting contract. Eddie Cantor became a hit in the Zigfield Follies.
That original Elizabeth Rotary meeting was described as "stormy" since the local Board of Trade felt Rotary might be competitive with their group. Al Stein persuaded his guests, however, that Rotary was needed in Elizabeth.
On February 7, 1917, the Rotary Club of Elizabeth was born, and it was officially registered on April 1 of that year.
Rotary meetings in those days were quite different from today's luncheons. There were few public restaurants, since almost everyone went home for lunch. Rotary first met in the loft above Harry Rath's plumbing shop on East Grand Street. Harry's wife furnished the meals. There were 35 members and the emphasis was on friendship. Elizabeth Rotarians became known for their singing abilities, and soon a small, but competent orchestra was organized. Several musical programs were given at the Elizabeth Town and Country Club.
By the early 1920's, Club membership was near the 90 mark and more formal weekly programs were organized. Rotary moved to a new restaurant on East Jersey Street and it became a local honor to be invited to a Rotary luncheon.
Community efforts were now directed toward assisting underprivileged youngsters and many programs, including Christmas festivities, were organized for this purpose.
Social activities were not forgotten, however. The Club had moonlight sails up the Hudson River on a Central Railroad ferryboat and an Annual golf tournament began.
During two world wars, Elizabeth Rotary was a leader in bond drives and other activities to support the nation's war effort. During his presidency in 1943, Bertram N. Miller sponsored four nursing scholarships for students in Elizabeth General Medical Center and Saint Elizabeth Hospital. This practice was continued for more than 30 years. Also during World War Two, Elizabeth Rotarians manned ambulances which were run by the City's three hospitals. Medical efforts in Elizabeth received much help from the Club.
Through the years the Elizabeth Club has had the honor to have four of its members serve as District Governors. The first was James C. Orr in 1926. Others were Rev. Charles A. Ross in 1930, Henry C. Ehwell in 1950 and Rev. Robert W. Scott in 1961.
In 1963 and 1964 Rotary meetings were held daily at the New York World's Fair. The Club sponsored five meetings, which were presided over by the Elizabeth Rotary President. On each visit from Elizabeth to New York, five busses were filled with eager Rotarians and their guests.
In May, 1967, 18 members and their Rotary Anns joined the District 751 trip to Europe and then to the Rotary International Conference in Nice, France. The conference was the first to be televised around the world. In August of that year, President Herbert Brown let two busloads of Elizabeth Rotarians to Montreal where they attended a luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of Montreal. The group then attended the Montreal World's Fair.
Elizabeth Rotarians did a lot of traveling during this period. They attended the Rotary International Convention in Mexico in 1968, the 1969 convention held in Atlantic City, the 1970 convention in Sydney, Australia, and in 1971 to the convention in Atlanta. At each, Club members met Rotarians from all over the world. Smaller groups of Elizabeth Rotarians attend R.I. Conventions in Rome, Toronto, Philadelphia, Lucerne and Lausanne.
The Rotary Club of Elizabeth has met in a variety of locations throughout the City in recent years. The Club moved from the Winfield Scott Hotel to the Lynn Restaurant, then to the Elks Club and finally to the present location at the Wyndham Hotel in 2000.
A major humanitarian effort was undertaken in 1969 when the Rotary Clubs of Elizabeth, Hillside, Linden, Kenilworth, Roselle/Roselle park and Union collected clothing, food and medicine and arranged to have it shipped to the hurricane-ravaged Philippines.
The Pancake Breakfast tradition was initiated in 1974 as a fundraiser to aid a faraway cause. The 34 Rotary Clubs of Israel were constructing a rehabilitation center for soldiers injured during the Yom Kippur War, and had contacted the Elizabeth Club in search of a price quite for two Elizabeth-made pool tables. The club purchased the slate tables, arranged for shipment to Israel, and conceived the pancake breakfast as a way to fund the donation. President Rev. Guy Lambert hosted the event in his church, the Third Presbyterian. The $1,350 profit from the event enabled Club International Service Chairman Herb Brown to present the two tables to the Israeli Rotary Committee at Haifa, Israel in March of 1974.
Two long-held traditions, recognition of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, were begun in 1959, and updated in 1984 under President Stu Berkowitz who moved the May meeting to June where it became the annual installation event for new officers. Past President Tom Wacaster is credited with starting the Club's observance of Secretary's Day.
Robert Verkouille presided over the Club during its 60th anniversary in 1977. One of the highlights that year was the Club's hosting a joint meeting with its sister club - the Kitami (Japan) Rotary Club.
In 1981, President Al Taylor started a "fruitful" fundraiser - the annual fruit sale.
In 1982, the Club began selling an innovative series of lithographs entitled "Elizabeth-Treasures of the Past" to fund the Club's fledgling scholarship program. Then President John Jacobson earned the nickname "General John" as a result of his energetic sales efforts. The scholarship effort flourished as a result of this lithograph program as well as a generous bequest from the estate of member Al Davis and his wife Louise. Since 1986 it has been known as the Albert and Louise Davis Scholarship Fund of the Rotary Club of Elizabeth, and has provided assistance to dozens of graduating Elizabeth High School students.
During the 1980's Rotary International discovered the power that could result from all of its 25,000 clubs addressing a single issue. This issue was nothing less than the elimination of polio from the face of the earth. In 1987 past President Bill Mealia became the District chairman of this effort, named PolioPlus. Bill's fundraising efforts produced over $650,000 from District 7510 - an amount which included $13,700 from the Elizabeth Rotary Club. Club members bettered their original goal of $10,000 by almost 40 percent during a vigorous campaign which involved the administrations of past presidents Jonathan Linden, Bill Berg, Ted Granberg and Steve Hafer. Worldwide, PolioPlus raised over $245 million. Rotary is well on its way toward its dream of eradicating polio by the year 2005.
Over the years the Club has bestowed the honor of a Paul Harris Fellow (named after the founder of Rotary), upon many of it members. The first Paul Harris Fellow was given to Past District Governor Rev. Robert Scott by President Leonard Duca in 1972. The second was awarded to Herb Brown by Ralph Mancini during Tom Wacaster's administration in 1980.
President Stan Kerian started the practice of naming a policeman and fireman of the year during his term in 1985.
Jon Linden was president in 1987 when Rotary International opened its doors to women. The Elizabeth Club wasted no tine in admitting women members, the first of whom was Ruth Brewster, daughter of late member Harry Lebau. Today there are six women in the Club.
A record $33,000 in charitable giving and scholarship funds were distributed during Steve Hafer's presidency in 1989-90, a year which also saw all club records become computerized.
Club members enjoy a variety of recreational activities, thanks to the efforts of several key members. Annual theater outings to the Papermill Playhouse are organized by Frank Gentempo, annual outings to the Monmouth Racetrack are led by Mike Porcelli, and a recent trip to Ellis Island was organized by Seymour Shapiro.
The Elizabeth Club gained international recognition when member Yung Soo Yoo began a program of reuniting Korean families. Under his "Family Reunion Project". Yung Soo has personally financed the plane trips of dozens of Korean wives who were separated for as long as seven years from their husbands who had immigrated illegally to the United States. The men have since been granted amnesty; however, they were unable to communicate with their loved ones in Korea. Yung Soo is currently being utilized by President George Bush to help open the long-locked doors of North Korea.
The Gulf War occurred during Peter Leonardis' term as President. Under his guidance a giant banner proclaiming "The Rotary Club of Elizabeth Supports Our Troops" was produced and hung over Elizabeth City Hall during victory celebrations.
Past President Joseph Milo received the coveted Vocational Service Award from District 7510 during the District Vocational Assembly held last October. He received his award from current Club President Doug Harris and Rotary International President Rajendra Saboo.
The Rotary Club of Elizabeth is a leader among civic organizations in the area. Its efforts to live up to the Rotary motto of "Service Above Self" have resulted in substantial contributions to Elizabeth and its causes. The heritage of the past 90 years is the effort of its many dedicated Rotarians. Our goal for the next 90 years is to be worthy of this heritage.