Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Damascus Rotary Club folds after five decades

Members vow to continue community service work

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The Damascus Rotary Club has given up its charter after more than 50 years of serving the community.

The club, which held its final meeting last Thursday, has been struggling for members for 10 years, said President Bob Bokma, 58, of Germantown.

Membership dwindled to 10 and the club was not able to recruit a new member in more than five years, despite its best efforts, he said.

‘‘A lot came looking for a place to promote their business — that’s not what Rotary is all about,” Jim Starcher, 63, of Mount Airy said. ‘‘Rotary is all about community service.”

Longtime members blame the club’s demise on Rotary International’s requirement that clubs hold weekly meetings and members attend at least 60 percent of the meetings.

Young couples are generally too busy with work and their children’s activities to commit the time to community service, members said.

‘‘We’ve been expecting this to happen for at least a year,” Ray Gustin, 70, of Laytonsville said. ‘‘It’s unfortunate, but I think volunteerism is seeing lean times. People don’t have the inclination to go out in the evenings and go to meetings.”

Gustin estimates the average age of club members was in the low 60s.

‘‘It was getting taxing to the older people in the group to raise money with only 10 people,” Starcher said. ‘‘It’s sad, but at some point it was time to go. We weren’t serving the community the way we should anymore.”

Lew Gladhill, 87, the last remaining charter member of the club, said his Rotary days are over.

In 1956, 23 men got together to form the Damascus club. Rotary International told them they needed 24, so Gladhill was invited to join the group. In its heyday, the club had 40 members, he said.

Gladhill had a 100 percent attendance record, except when he was traveling.

‘‘I was ready to quit,” he said. ‘‘It’s a long grind.”

Some members make stops at local Rotary clubs part of their travels.

Dan King, 68, of Damascus served four tours overseas in his work for the U.S. State Department.

‘‘The first thing I always did was join the local Rotary Club,” he said. ‘‘It was a great way to meet other people and get a true feel for the cultures.”

Rotary International has invited Damascus members to join other clubs, said Carol Blackburn, assistant governor for the district that includes Damascus.

‘‘We all feel bad. We really do,” she said. ‘‘It just wasn’t working.”

Damascus sponsored the Mount Airy club she attends. Frederick has three clubs.

‘‘Internationally, Rotary is growing,” Blackburn, a former editor and publisher of The Mount Airy Gazette, said.

Club members are worried about their community service projects.

‘‘We really wonder as these organizations fold, who’s going to do the community service stuff? Will everyone rely on government?” King said.

The club has given money to the Damascus Volunteer Fire Department, local PTAs, sports teams, Scout troops, the Carol Jean Cancer Foundation and Damascus Help. For the last few years it has given dictionaries to every third-grader in the Damascus and Clarksburg school clusters. Every year it gives three $500 scholarships to graduating Damascus High School seniors, and this year the club will use up its scholarship account by giving four scholarships.

‘‘I’m sure we’re not going to abandon [Damascus], especially the dictionary project,” Blackburn said.

Most members of the Damascus club expect to join other clubs. The Potomac club has been working with a group in Germantown to establish a club there that several Damascus members expect to join. Others will join clubs in Mount Airy and Olney.

‘‘The main thing is all of us want to keep involved in the community,” King said.

He has not decided whether he will join another Rotary Club or continue his community volunteer work through another organization such as the Damascus Lions Club or the Damascus Heritage Society.

‘‘I’m going to miss the friendships,” Starcher said. ‘‘I’m going to try to keep the friendships up.”

Members and their spouses have become close over the years, he said. They are planning to hold a final dinner for members, former members and their spouses later this month.