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Middlebury Rotary puts ‘service above self’

MIDDLEBURY ROTARY MEMBER Ben Fuller helps out on David Clark’s cleanup project at the Old Town Cemetery on Washington Street Extension. “The Rotary Club’s cemetery restoration project started as most of our projects did: A member saw something needed to be addressed and rallied fellow club members to join in,” Clark said. Photo courtesy of Middlebury Rotary

The Rotary Club’s cemetery restoration project started as most of our projects did. A member saw something that needed to be addressed and rallied fellow club members to join in.
— David Clark

MIDDLEBURY — “We have a group of men in our club who are mostly retired who are carpenters,” Weybridge resident and Middlebury Rotary Club member Nancy Foster said. “I have no idea how many handicap ramps they (have) put in for people. (Folks will) often call and say, ‘Do you have a few people that will do this?”’

The Rotary Club’s answer to the call for help is always: Yes, we do.

The Middlebury Rotary Club, a local chapter of the international humanitarian organization, has been going strong since the chapter’s founding in 1927. This summer alone, members have participated in several service efforts, including a renovation of the Old Town Cemetery and the annual flag project, in which the club posts American flags for subscribers on five holidays: Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Veterans Day.

But a remarkable thing about the club — with many members well into their 60s and 70s — is just how active the organization has remained throughout the COVID pandemic.

Maureen Conrad, who completed her year as local club president June 30, described how the club adjusted to quarantine during the early days of the pandemic.

“We have, for many years, met for breakfast at Rosie’s Restaurant at 7:15 a.m. sharp on Wednesday mornings,” she said. “When the pandemic started it rapidly became apparent that that was not going to be possible. We quickly learned how to attend Zoom meetings and had in-person meetings when possible.”

With sporadic meetings at the Middlebury Inn and events taking place in the outdoors, the Rotary Club managed to pull of the planning of events, including the placement of outdoor functioning desks and tents for local elementary schools, which adjusted their class locations due to the pandemic.

The club this May returned to its first breakfast meetings at Rosie’s since the introduction of COVID vaccines and the easing of social distancing measures in Vermont.

“It felt great,” Foster said about her first meal at Rosie’s with her altruistic colleagues.

RECENT PROJECTS

One recent Rotary project Conrad was especially proud of was a cookout for Middlebury Union High School seniors.

“We have a new member, Rebecca Hanley, who suggested that the group cook and serve dinner for graduation seniors participating in Project Graduation,” she said. 

“Although (Hanley) had never organized a project of this type, she, with some assistance from her fellow members, saw the project through and successfully served dinner to some very appreciative students,” Conrad said.

Although the senior cookout was first and foremost a community service project, Conrad also described the effort as a good way to demonstrate to potential Rotarians what the club does.

“We attempt to offer service projects that appeal to members of all ages, and we encourage new members to suggest new service projects they are interested in,” Conrad said. “There is real potential in a group like this for young people to develop leadership skills and to work with people of all ages and varied talents to accomplish good things.”

Foster related how young people in Middlebury annually volunteer with Rotary Club projects and gave a special shout-out to the MUHS football team. The Tigers in January helped with the Rotary Club’s annual “Merry Mulch” project, wherein the club collects and disposes of Christmas trees after the holidays.

“Teenage boys pulling Christmas trees out of the snow is a really big plus for (people who are not able to do that),” Foster said. “We get all of these Middlebury Union High School football players showing up on a cold January morning.”

Five MUHS students — Nikolai Luksch, Brian Whitley, Ryan Thomas-Danyow, Cooper LaRoche, and Sam Warren — came out to assist Rotarians Paul Horn, Buzz Kernan, Helmut Hietzker, Tim Hollander, Steve Williams, T Tall and David Clark, plus Vermont Old Cemetery Association volunteers, during the Rotary’s June 26 cleanup of the Old Town Cemetery on Washington Street Extension.

Clark organized the effort.

“The Rotary Club’s cemetery restoration project started as most of our projects did,” he said. “A member saw something that needed to be addressed and rallied fellow club members to join in.

“In this case, I had driven by the cemetery for years and one time even stopped to explore it,” Clark added. “It was overgrown with vegetation — dead trees, vines, buckthorn. The town mowed the grass but clearly less needed to be mowed every year as the cemetery grew smaller and smaller.”

Club members, Cemetery Association members and the MUHS students erected fallen and broken tombstones, re-dug foundations for tombstone bases, reset and leveled stones, and added crushed stone to stabilize the stones. Rotary volunteers will return later this summer to restore several more tombstones.

Middlebury Rotary President Kernan was pleased with the results of Clark’s project.

“We got quite a bit done in half a day, (but) there’s still a little bit more work that needs to be done,” he said.

Kernan started his tenure as Rotary Club president last month. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, one of his main goals as president is to reaffirm the social aspect of the club.

“My main focus is bringing us closer together,” he said. “Fellowship is a pretty important part of what we do. I have changed our meeting schedule together (to) just have a monthly social.”

HOISTING THE COLORS

If there’s one volunteer effort that is a favorite among Middlebury Rotary Club members, it is their annual flag project, where small businesses and individuals make donations to the club in exchange for the Rotary coming out and posting flags outside of businesses or other selected spots.

Foster said the flag project represents patriotism — but not in the Uncle Sam sense of the word. 

“(The flag project represents) patriotism in its broadest sense,” she said. “We’re a very non-political club. We don’t talk about politics in the club.

“We have Republicans, Democrats, we have every political persuasion possible in our club,” she added.

Conrad agreed, saying that the flag project’s emphasis on veterans was especially important to her.

“Our flag project (is my favorite),” Conrad said. “It is an opportunity for numerous members of the club to work together to make the town look festive on five patriotic holidays, and … It honors veterans who have done so much for our country.”

Just before July 4, an act of vandalism occurred when Rotary flags posted off Park Street were thrown into Otter Creek. Plaques put in by the club to honor veterans were also defaced.

“I think it’s awful,” Kernan said. “It’s doing damage just to do damage. You would hope even vandals have a certain amount of respect.”

JOINING IN SERVICE

Foster, a Rotarian for 25 years, noted changes in Rotary over the years. Rotary International only began admitting women in 1989, only seven years before she joined the Middlebury Rotary Club.

“(Before 1989), people who (were) members of Rotary had to be a business owner or (have) a prominent position of leadership in a business,” Foster said.

But in 1996, an older male friend who was in the club gave Foster an elevator speech: The Middlebury chapter was trying to recruit women members.

“So, they convinced me to join,” Foster said. “And I joined because I was a woman who owned a business and they had so few women in the club, and they were making a strong effort to increase the number of women in the club.”

At a June 30 ceremony, Conrad, who had served as president for 2020-2021, passed over the torch to Kernan.

Looking back on her years of service at Rotary, Conrad explained how she began her time in the group. 

“I had recently relocated to Vermont, knew almost no one and my husband had already joined the club,” Conrad said. “I had gotten to know many of the members and liked the idea of using some of my free time to help out in my ‘adopted’ community of Middlebury.

“On the morning of my induction my husband told me, ‘(After) today you will have 50 new friends.’ He was right.”

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