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Published: Monday, 7/18/2011 - Updated: 2 years ago

It's not your father's Rotary anymore

When Helyn Bolanis became a Rotarian in 1995, Rotary was still pretty much a man's world. She was one of only a few women among 500 or so men in the Rotary Club of Toledo.

Today, the club, which meets for lunch every Monday at the Park Inn, has about 430 members -- it's one of the oldest and largest Rotary clubs anywhere -- but now some 20 percent are females.

Ms. Bolanis not only rose to the presidency of her club in 2008, she has just begun a one-year term as district governor for Rotary District 6600, which is home to 3,700 Rotarians in 64 clubs across northwest and north central Ohio. It's a job no woman has held in the district's nearly 100-year history.

Full disclosure here: I am a member of the Rotary Club of Toledo. Fewer than 8 percent of club members are under 40, so in a sense, I am what's wrong with Rotary. I am an aging, white-haired male, and I have a lot of company at our meetings. The average age of Toledo Rotary Club members is almost 60.

Ms. Bolanis sees that as a strength, but also a challenge. "We need to focus on generating interest in young people for the future success of Rotary," she says. "It is not optional. We either grow, or we die."

The old notion that Rotary is home to the titans of business and industry -- true for so long -- no longer is a given. Rotary is morphing into something different.

Some of the most prominent names in Toledo history were members of Toledo Rotary -- Edward Drummond Libbey, W.W. Knight, Thomas DeVilbiss, Harold Anderson, Grove Patterson, Harold Boeschenstein, and Robert and Frank Stranahan. They are gone, as are some of the companies that were the bedrock of Toledo's economy.

The theme of Ms. Bolanis' year as district governor is: "It's About Time to Share Our Story." A big part of that is getting the message out to prospective members -- preferably men and women in their 30s and 40s.

She will visit every one of her district's 64 clubs during her 12 months as their leader. The downtown Toledo club is the largest; a club in Greenwich, east of Willard, is the smallest, with just 10 members. Without aggressive recruitment of new Rotarians, she fears, the organization could begin to lose its relevance.

Rotary International has 1.2 million members in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. But the percentage of American members has been slipping. Today, 354,000 Rotarians are Americans, less than 30 percent of total membership, a reflection in part of growth overseas but also the result of slowed growth here at home.

It's not just Rotary. Fraternal organizations and those with a military membership base, such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, struggle to maintain solid numbers.

Not too long ago, women at Rotary usually were there as the wives of male members. They were referred to as Rotary-anns. As more women claim a seat at the table as full members, the term isn't heard so much anymore.

In fact, Ms. Bolanis' daughter, Nichole, is a Rotarian in Los Angeles. She came to Toledo to see her mother sworn in as district governor.

Part of Ms. Bolanis' mission is to help individual clubs overcome feelings of isolation.

She invited every club in the district to her installation. Members of 44 of them came. More than 400 Rotarians gathered at the Nairobi Pavilion of the Toledo Zoo for the June 30 event, the largest gathering ever for District 6600. She called the ceremony "My Big Fat Greek Installation," a reference to her heritage.

Rotary is changing, just as Kiwanis, the Lions Club, and other service clubs and fraternal organizations are changing. They have no choice. When business gets conducted across the table at service club luncheons these days, it is increasingly without regard to gender, and that is a good thing.

So is Toledo Rotary's campaign to recruit "40 Under 40" and get a little more youthful during the club's approaching centennial year. It was chartered in 1912.

"It's a fabulous idea, something we should have done a long time ago," says veteran Toledo Rotarian and historian Clint Mauk, who has been in Rotary for 57 years. "It's great to see."

By the time Ms. Bolanis' year as district governor is up, she'd like to see her organization invigorated with many newcomers. They don't have to be CEOs. If they're young, so much the better.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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