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Rotary Club of Hickory celebrates 100 years of service

Rotary Club of Hickory celebrates 100 years of service

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Shown is a group shot from the 2013 Rotarian Idol competition.

The Rotary Club of Hickory, the first service club organized in Catawba County, celebrates a century of service in 2021.

Although club plans to recognize and commemorate the centennial milestone differ significantly than what was originally envisioned prior to the pandemic, the Rotary Club of Hickory will still host events and increase charitable giving to celebrate the club’s century of service to the local community and Rotary International.

On Feb. 11, the club will host a virtual centennial celebration at noon via Zoom. All Rotarians, including past and present members, as well as members, past and present, of other clubs, and members of the community are invited to participate in this special event. Tentative plans include recognition and remarks by Holger Knaack, Rotary International president , a member of the Rotary Club of Herzogtum Lauenburg-Mölln, Germany. Also participating will be Stephanie A. Urchick, Rotary International director 2019-21, of the Rotary Club of McMurray, Pa.; and Rotary International director 2020-2022, Peter R. Kyle, of the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Anyone wishing to participate in this online meeting should contact Tara Bland, club president, at

Rotary Club of Hickory past presidents will make a special presentation on the club’s history and century of service, and Hickory Mayor Hank Guess will present a special proclamation to Bland recognizing the club’s service and importance to the community over the last 100 years.

In recognition of the 100-year milestone, the Rotary Club of Hickory plans to increase charitable giving and volunteer efforts for the community above and beyond what has been done in years past. While the exact breakdown for 2021 is still going through the budgeting and allocation process, the club plans to combine financial support and community service projects equivalent to $100,000 or more, symbolically recognizing the club’s centennial anniversary in a way that benefits the community that club members call home.

The Rotary Club of Hickory plans to host a safe, in-person gathering as soon as such gatherings are permitted under COVID-19 guidelines.

Chartered in 1921, during the first 16 years of Rotary International, and ranked as one of the largest clubs in its Rotary district, the club has earned recognition from its Rotary peers and other community organizations for its spirit of service. Its contributions have also given direction to the advances of the city and county it serves. 

Early Years

The founder of the Rotary Club of Hickory was Watt Shuford (1873-1935), a member of one of Hickory’s pioneer families who pursued interests in dairying and farming. He managed the Hickory Seed Company for 20 years. In 1912, he helped organize the Catawba Creamery. He served as its president and manager for many years, guiding its growth into one of the largest cooperative creameries in the South. Shuford served on many local agricultural boards and was appointed by two state governors to terms on the State Board of Agriculture, serving for 10 years.

While in Asheville for a 1920 creamery convention, Shuford attended a Rotary club meeting and became interested in forming a club in Hickory. Members of the Asheville club encouraged him to do so, helping with their guidance and assistance.

Ten members of the Asheville club, led by International Sergeant-at-Arms Emmet E. Galer, attended the organizational meeting of the Rotary Club of Hickory. The meeting, held on Friday, Feb. 11, 1921, at Hotel Huffry, was attended by 18 charter members. Shuford was named president. Elected vice president was Kenneth C. Menzies, cashier of First National Bank. The position of treasurer was filled by George R. Wootten, secretary-treasurer of the First Building & Loan Association. Albert C. Hewitt, president of Hickory Ice & Coal Company, was elected sergeant-at-arms. Named secretary was Frank A. Henderson, vice president and treasurer of Hickory Overall Company. Also elected to the board of directors were Neil W. Clark, president of Yoder-Clark Clothing Company; and George L. Lyerly, manager of Shuford Hardware Company.

The other charter members were Fred A. Abernethy, livestock dealer; Bascom B. Blackwelder, Shuford Mills executive; John H.P. Cilley, manager of Piedmont Foundry & Machine Company; J. Lenoir Cilley, assistant cashier of First National Bank; Hugh D’Anna, manager of Hickory Hosiery Mills; Joseph D. Elliott, president and treasurer of Elliott Building Company Contractors; Sam H. Farabee, editor of the Hickory Daily Record; Rusk G. Henry, city manager; Robert E. Martin, partner of Whitener & Martin Retail Grocery; A. Alex Shuford, secretary and treasurer of A.A. Shuford Mill Company; and Jake H. Shuford, surgeon and owner of Richard Baker Hospital.

The charter for the club, issued by Rotary International on March 1, 1921, was formally presented at a regular meeting on May 12 by District Governor Buck Perrin of Spartanburg, S.C. The club was the 485th to be formed by the international organization. It was placed in the 280th district which, in addition to western North Carolina, included the state of South Carolina and some clubs in Virginia and Tennessee. As districts changed over the years, the Rotary Club of Hickory is now a part of Rotary District 7670 which includes more than 50 clubs in western North Carolina.

At its first regular meeting, over a 1 p.m. lunch on Feb. 17, 1921 at Hotel Huffry, the club voted to meet every Thursday at the same hour except on the last Thursday of each month when it would meet at 7:30 p.m. In 1926 the meeting site was shifted from the Huffry Hotel to the new Hotel Hickory, where the club continued to gather for 44 years.

In its first December (1921) as an organization, the new club demonstrated its service potential. It distributed 50 cents in new 5-cent pieces to each of the 23 residents in the County Home and gave 28 baskets — consisting of flour, chicken, nuts, fruit, candy, sugar and toys — to the needy. On the day following Christmas, it treated more than 1,000 children to a moving picture show in the City Auditorium. At its next regular meeting, the members took a collection of $34 to supply fuel and food to five families who were in “dire circumstance.”

Growth, Giving

The club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1970-71 by initiating the development of the 19-acre Rotary-Geitner Park, a waterfront park located at 2038 12th St. Drive, NW, which is the future home of the Riverwalk and features an activity building, picnic shelter with tables and grills, gazebo, walking and nature trails, boat dock and ramp, a fishing pier, restrooms and a system of mountain biking trails. The club also moved from its Hotel Hickory meeting place — first to Lenoir-Rhyne College, then to the Holiday Inn and finally to Mom & Pops Restaurant. Later, in 1993, the Thursday, noon, meeting place was moved to Lake Hickory Country Club.

Following delays caused by problems in defining territories, the Hickory East Rotary Club (later renamed Lake Hickory Rotary Club) was organized in 1973 under the sponsorship of the Rotary Club of Hickory. The event increased the number of area clubs organized by the Rotary Club of Hickory to eight: Jefferson 1928; Lenoir 1930; Marion 1934; Granite Falls 1936; Taylorsville 1938; Newton Conover 1949 (co-sponsored with Lincolnton Rotary); Lake Hickory 1973; Hickory Sunrise 2000.

In 1982, the club joined hands with the City of Hickory to develop a second park— a 60-acre natural-area park near Lake Hickory at 2000 Sixth St. NW. The development of the park, later named for Rotarian and City Councilman Glenn Hilton, included construction of picnic shelters, a children’s playground, and four trails. The project was recognized in 1984 as the best project in western North Carolina’s Rotary District 7670.

In 1995, the club sponsored the Interact Club at Hickory High School, which had become one of the largest in the Rotary district, and was recognized as the most outstanding in the district. Interact is a Rotary-sponsored service club for young people. It gives high school students, an opportunity to participate in fun and meaningful service projects in their community.

As the world moved toward the new millennium, Rotary Club of Hickory continued to increase its fundraising goals and charitable giving initiatives. During the club’s 75th year (1996-1997), it hosted the sixth Rotary Unlimited fundraiser, and began exploring alternate fundraising opportunities. As more and more of the club’s charitable giving focused on the theme of educating Catawba County students for a brighter future, discussion began about a new fundraiser. After extensive research and planning a new fundraiser, Education Alive, became a reality during the 1998-1999 Rotary year. Education Alive involved not only the club but the entire community. Area businesses and individuals donated merchandise for auction and Catawba Valley Community College provided its basketball arena to host the event which was broadcast live by Catawba Valley Cable TV. During its second year, 1999-2000, Education Alive peaked, raising $250,000 that year, followed up by $192,000 the following year. Education Alive, alternating occasionally with Rotary Unlimited, continued its successful run for a number of years and was finally phased out during the 2008-2009 Rotary year after raising almost $1 million  for student loans and other local educational initiatives.

During 2010 a new fundraiser, Rotarian Idol, was introduced to the community. Modeled after the successful Fox TV show, “American Idol,” Rotarian Idol is a singing contest for amateurs. Twenty contestants compete for first, second, third and Audience Favorite prize money. The annual event is held at P.E. Monroe Auditorium on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University. Area businesses, as well as individuals, support the fundraiser by purchasing program ads, event tickets, and event sponsorships. Entering its 11th year, in 2021, the event has raised more than $577,572 to aid in funding the club’s educational and charitable giving initiatives, as well as local and international humanitarian needs.

Other Achievements

In addition to successful fundraising, the club has had other recent notable achievements. During the 1999-2000 year the club chartered a Rotaract Club at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Rotaract clubs bring together people ages 18-30 to exchange ideas with leaders in the community, develop leadership and professional skills, and have fun through service. During the 2000-2001 Rotary year, Rotary Club of Hickory chartered the new Hickory Sunrise Rotary Club which began meeting at 7 a.m. on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University. Also the club began supporting the Coins for Alzheimer’s Trust by placing CART buckets on the tables during club meetings. Members are encouraged to place money in the buckets to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

The Rotary Club of Hickory also embraced membership diversity when the Rotary International Council on Legislation voted to eliminate the requirement in the RI Constitution that membership in Rotary clubs is limited to men, and clubs began to welcome women into membership in Rotary clubs around the world. Bonnie Mitchell became the first female inducted into the Rotary Club of Hickory in 1994. In 2001-2002, Susan Huffman became the first female president of the Rotary Club of Hickory and was followed by seven more female presidents through 2021.

In the spring of 2011, the Catawba County Partnership for Children along with the support of the Rotary Club of Hickory was able to bring Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Program to the children of Catawba County. Children enrolled in Imagination Library are mailed a free, age-appropriate book each month until they turn 5 years old. Since Imagination Library’s inception in April 2011, The Rotary Club of Hickory has contributed $227,000 and mailed out 109,135 books covering the costs for about 825 children each year The Dollywood Foundation significantly offsets the cost of the books and mailing, so each book that is sent to a Catawba County child is free for families, but costs the Catawba County Partnership for Children about $2.

The Rotary Club of Hickory made an initial financial contribution of $15,000 in April of 2011 and since then the Rotary Club of Hickory has donated an additional $212,000 to the Catawba County Partnership for Children for the Imagination Library program. The ongoing financial support of the Rotary Club of Hickory has allowed the Partnership to build the local Imagination Library program to serve more than 5,300 Catawba County children each month. A recent evaluation of the program indicates that the Partnership and Rotary are making a considerable impact on early literacy in the community. Eighty-seven percent of parents report that they are reading more often to their children and that their children are becoming excited about reading. Ninety-nine percent of parents reported that they feel that reading to their child is helping them to be more prepared for success in kindergarten.

In 2014, the Rotary Club of Hickory donated $14,000 to pay for the concept drawings for a new park in downtown Hickory. The park was the brainchild of the Friends of Hickory organization, and Rotary Club of Hickory’s donation was the first step necessary for the project to proceed. The downtown park incorporates play space, an interactive educational water feature on the Catawba River basin, as well as a place to sit and enjoy the surroundings. The historic downtown area currently attracts a wide variety of businesses and visitors to Hickory. The addition of a park adds to the appeal of shopping, dining, and doing business on Union Square, offering an active destination for the city’s youngest visitors and their families.

Throughout its 100-year history, the club has made annual gifts to charitable organizations and interests. Through the years, the club’s giving philosophy locally has focused on education and the club’s charitable giving has included Service Above Self college scholarships; Wilmer Jenkins Teacher of the Year awards, named in honor of Rotarian and former Superintendent of Hickory Public Schools, Wilmer Jenkins; Imagination Library; Southwest Elementary School; Hickory Museum of Art Paul Whitener Art Show, named in honor of Rotarian and Hickory Museum of Art founding director Paul Whitener; Catawba County Council for Adolescents; Catawba Valley Community College; City of Hickory Glenn Hilton Park and Rotary-Geitner Park; Family Guidance Center; Adult Life Program; Family Care Center; and Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club and CART (Coins for Alzheimer’s Trust).

As the club begins celebrating a “Century of Service” in 2021, the Rotary Club of Hickory is successfully meeting the challenge to serve safely as COVID-19 continues to challenge humanity. Although the club is unable to meet weekly in person under current pandemic restrictions, members continue to meet virtually on a weekly basis using Zoom. Despite these challenges the Rotary Club of Hickory still managed to distribute more than $58,000 in 2019-2020 for educational and other charitable needs in the Hickory area.

Over the last 100 years through two world wars, global pandemics and other social and financial challenges worldwide, the Rotary Club of Hickory’s initial membership of 18 has grown and contracted and now includes approximately 100 members. Its early focus on the local organization has broadened to embrace the district. Its benevolent concerns have shifted from the agrarian to the urban community and expanded beyond the city limits to attend to international needs. But, through time, changes and challenges, the club has maintained its basic commitment to service. As Rotary looks to the future, it acknowledges that its continued effectiveness rests on its renewed dedication to the object of Rotary: “to encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise” and to Rotary’s motto of “Service Above Self.”


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