PERU – Ruth Fuchs had lived in Peru just one day when she got an invitation from a local businesswoman to join the Peru Rotary club.
Fuchs, who works as the director of operations for Hickory Creek Healthcare Foundation, said she had been a member of another Rotary club before moving to the city in 2010, and didn’t have any plans to join another one.
But there was something special about the Peru Rotary Club.
“They were all very kind and very welcoming,” Fuchs said. “A lot of communities ask if you’re from the town, and if you’re not, you feel like an outsider. That wasn’t the case here at the Peru club. I didn’t feel like an outsider, which is a big deal when you move to a new town.”
And that’s the kind of friendship and fellowship the club has been providing the city for 100 years, she said.
This year marks the centennial of the Peru club, which was founded in April 1919 by a group of local businessmen. Since then, the local organization has operated without interruption pursuing the main goals of the group: promoting peace, supporting education, fighting poverty and growing local economies.
The genesis of the organization dates back to 1905, when Chicago attorney Paul Harris formed the first Rotary Club to give professionals with diverse backgrounds a place to exchange ideas, form meaningful friendships and give back to their communities.
Today, the international organization boasts more than 1.2 million members from cities and town around the globe.
In Peru, the group has grown to around 50 members in the last couple of years, bucking the national trend in most other service organizations, which struggle to bring in new members.
Miami Circuit Court Judge Tim Spahr, who has been a member since 2004 and has served as the group’s president, said that’s because the Rotary Club has a way of making members feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
“In your community, you want to feel like you’re making a difference,” he said. “… A lot of groups are struggling for membership, but we’re doing pretty good. If you give people in your organization a sense of purpose, you can grow.”
Spahr said it’s hard to quantify how much the club’s sense of service has done for the community in the last 100 years.
In the beginning, the group made it a point to distribute Christmas cheer among the poor children of Peru, giving out toys, fruits, candies, clothing and other necessities.
On multiple occasions, club members picked up the orphans at the former Dunkard Home and gave them dinner and an opportunity to watch a circus parade or show in Peru, the self-proclaimed “Circus Capital of the World.”
For several years starting in 1923, the organization hosted Civil War veterans. Thirty veterans attended the first of those events. The next year, the veterans held a story hour. The events were so successful that “The Rotarian” magazine reported on them.
Today, the group hosts a slew of outreaches. There’s the Shoe’s-That-Fit program, which has given over $50,000 of shoes to local students in need. Rotary Buddies helps at-risk kindergarten children learn to read. Members annually raise money to support the Nickel Plate Trail, and help keep the pathway clean.
And this year, in honor of their centennial anniversary, the club has raised around $10,000 to install a new music station along the Riverwalk Trail at West End Park, near where the city’s new YMCA will be built.
Fuchs said the station will have all kinds of mallets and percussion-type instruments on which kids and trail-users can drum and bang to create all kinds of different sounds.
The group has also painted a 100-year-anniversary mural on the side of Ace Hardware, located on Broadway.
Sparh, who this year wrote a 68-page history of the Peru club, said looking back, the local group has had its fair share of characters.
There was Jess Adkins, who was a member and one-time president of the club in the 1930s. He was also a member of a circus. On a number of occasions, Adkins treated club members to a meal under the Big Top when his circus was visiting a community near Peru.
It was unusual enough for a person from his profession to be a club president that he was featured in “The Rotarian” magazine in July 1934.
In 1935, Peru Rotary Club President Will Ditzler and his wife drove over 2,100 miles to Mexico City for the Rotary International Convention.
The two were said to be the first people to drive a car the entire distance of the recently completed Mexico City Highway, which required them to ford several streams because the bridges had not yet been built.
Spahr said the club has a colorful history, but it’s the service and outreach that’s been the group’s biggest contribution to the city.
And that’s all thanks to the four businessmen who saw the value of the club and decided to bring one to Peru.
“It’s satisfying to think that 100 years ago we had local business leaders who heard about this organization and said we want this for Peru,” Spahr said. “They started it and ran it for 100 years without a break. Despite the Great Depression or World War II or downturns in the economy, it didn’t matter. The club kept going to help people inside and outside Peru.”