The RCHS Spotlight focuses on the story of a local business, service club, or nonprofit organization which partners with the Rock County Historical Society to support our various events and initiatives.
By Teresa Nguyen, RCHS HistoryTeller
The sun just peeks over the horizon, as if yawning and stretching with the world, and its gleaming, yellow rays peer through the treetops surrounding Palmer Drive. I turn into the Rotary Botanical Gardens parking lot and grab my interviewing bag containing cute History in Focus buttons, a notebook, a folder with my list of special questions and a few legal forms, oh, and my pen.
A sea of soft, pastel colored flowers of pink, yellow and coral greets me sweetly, like petals on the bride’s path to her wedding. Fluttering butterflies and buzzing bees flit from flower to flower, drinking in their breakfast nectar. Such a glorious setting for a weekly, morning club meeting!
I make my way inside to discover what could easily be an after-work Friday gathering of business friends, if not for the sunlight beaming in through the east door. Their smiles are large and laughter even larger, as I hear it from the entrance to the Parker Education Center.
Every Thursday morning, bright and early, this 35-year-old, local service club meets at 6:45 at the gardens. Hence the name, Janesville Morning Rotary Club.
Past President, Kelli Cameron, cheerfully greets me and points out my best interview subjects in the room, some of the founding fathers and former presidents of Janesville Morning Rotary. They are gathered for the club’s 35th Anniversary breakfast, complete with cake.
Cake in the morning? What a treat. The smell of fresh coffee and morning sausage wafts through the air and I figure I should get to work before hungry stomachs and caffeine cravings lead them all to the scrumptious buffet.
I see Larry Barton and Bill Moxley … I make my move, sliding up to their high-top table with my cheerful, morning-person smile, a brief introduction, casually raising my RCHS name tag and explain the purpose of my visit with a pause for their answer to willingly share their stories.
Thankfully, the entire group, including Larry and Bill, is warm and welcoming. And though it’s typically an easy transition from that first hello to the moment I ask the first question, this particular group is even more wonderfully friendly, making me wish I could stay longer.
Larry Barton, Founding Member and First President of Janesville Morning Rotary
Tell me about what brought you here.
I moved to Janesville in 1969. I came out of the Marine Corps and joined a law firm, Nowlan and Mouat, in that same year. We moved into our house on St. Lawrence in 1973.
How did you become involved in Janesville Morning Rotary?
The evolution of the club was such that in the early 80’s, the district governor of Rotary, Ed Arn, lived right behind me. We shared a backyard with just a little stone fence between us, we were friends. He approached me and said, “Would you be interested in starting a new Rotary Club?” The noon club was already in existence, and it was quite large. They probably had 90 to 100 members or so.
So, I said I would and he put me in touch with Bill Moxley. We started having meetings in my office at Nowlan and Mouat. I gathered a few of my friends together. We had to have a total of 20 people to get our charter.
I was sitting there with Bill and one other friend of mine. I said, “I’ll call two or three, you call two or three.” We decided we didn’t want to meet at noon or in the evening. We were young and vibrant, new in our careers, and we wanted to have a club in the morning to get our day started and go off to work from there.
It took off from there! We kept growing.
What have been some of your favorite community projects?
I would say the fruit baskets and the Pie Ride. The ideas for those fundraisers got started when the club was young. The brainchild behind the Pie Ride was John Westphal. The projects are still going strong, and they are still the main source of our fundraising. We use the money, which feeds into the foundation, to give back to the community.
I started the foundation, which is actually separate from the club.
What are some of the ways the club gives back?
We’ve concentrated a lot with the youth, school projects, playgrounds. We are also currently involved in the ARISE Now project downtown with the new park. We’ve given to different non-profits, whether it’s hospice or the fire department, for example, when they needed some oxygen masks.
What is your hope for the future of Janesville Morning Rotary?
Our concentration is to do things for the community, but at the same time, we don’t like to take ourselves too seriously. We enjoy each other’s company and like to have fun, too.
Bill Moxley, Founding Member and Former Janesville Morning Rotary President
Tell me a bit about your background.
I came here in 1983, I was transferred here by the JC Penney company and ran the JC Penney store in the mall as store manager for 20 years. I am a founding member of the Janesville Morning Rotary, and still around, still involved.
What interested you in this the Janesville Morning Rotary Club and how did it get started?
Well, about five or six guys got together. In those days it was all guys, now it’s about 50% women. We all just decided we wanted to form a club, but we didn’t want a noon club. The main reason was because we were too busy and we couldn’t get away for the Noon Rotary, which was on Mondays. That’s always a busy day for all of the business people. So, we got together and talked with Larry Barton and a few others.
There were about 19 of us at the very beginning. We decided to form a morning club. Ed Arn, who was the liaison from the Noon Rotary, kind of helped us get started. He knew about setting up a club and what it all entailed. Ed and Larry were instrumental in getting it off the ground. That was in 1982 and 1983.
What was your role at that time?
Well, I was just one of the 19 that started it. I was the third president of the club. Larry Barton was our first and the second was Steve Nickols.
How did you recruit members back then?
Well, we just invited them and let them see what the club was all about. We found upstanding citizens. Our peak was about 70 members! That was in the early 90’s, and we outgrew a couple of our meeting places!
Now, we’re 40 strong and all good members, all are involved.
What do you do outside Janesville Morning Rotary?
My son and I are franchise owners of the UPS store on Milton Avenue. We’ve had it for 19 years now. When I retired from JC Penney, I wanted to do something and thought that would be a good fit for Janesville. And it has been.
There have been a lot of exciting times for the club over the years, tell me about your favorite projects.
The very first thing we did was put in the Japanese Bridge at Rotary Gardens. That was us! At the time, we had the Cullens and Ryans in the club, so we had the people with the know-how to do the bridge. So, that was our first big project.
The clock on the corner of Court Street and River St. is also one of our projects. More recently, we put in the electronic sign in front of Rotary Gardens.
What is your hope for the future of the Janesville Morning Rotary?
I hope the club continues the programs we have going. We’re a younger club, except for Bob and I, and we’re recruiting people who want to be involved, rather than people who want to just come and have breakfast.
Jim Hutchinson, Early Member and Former Janesville Morning Rotary President
What is your role in the Morning Rotary?
I was past president, and now a member. I’m in charge of the Student of the Month program. There is one young lady who recently came into the club. I coached her with my daughters in soccer. So, to see those kids come back into the community is so rewarding.
How did you get started in the club?
Tom Wolfe recruited me back in 1995. I was in on the original meetings of the development of the Pie Ride.
How did the Pie Ride get started?
It was really John Westphal’s idea that we do this family-oriented bike ride. The memory I have is of us sitting in the conference room down at Westphal Electric, down there by the river. John was talking and he said something like, “Well, you’ve got to have something that’s catchy for an event to catch people’s interest and bring them back and make it memorable … like giving away a pie or something like that.” And someone shouted out, “Pie Ride!” That’s how it began.
We’re over 500 riders now! I think we had around 200 the first year, and we were tickled pink.
The money comes in through sponsorships and through people registering. We really deemphasize it as a fundraiser. What we wanted to do is to have a community event. We wanted it to be inclusive of children and families. That’s been the focus of the club. It’s not a race, it’s a ride.
It starts with 20K, about 12 miles for the younger ones, which is kept on the bike trails. For adults we go all the way from 50K, which is 32 miles to 100K, or 64 miles. Then, we have a 100 miles ride for the professionals. It really is an event for the community.
I really enjoy being involved in the Pie Ride and the Fruit Baskets.
Tom Wolfe, Founding Member and Former Morning Rotary President
What interested you in the Janesville Morning Rotary?
Well, I’m a native to Janesville and started working with what was First National Bank. At that time, my wife was Larry’s assistant. She said they were looking for new members. As a young banker, I was looking for a civic organization to join, so it was a natural fit.
How were you instrumental in the club?
I joined the board almost immediately, and I became president the third or fourth year. In fact, I was president the year Rotary International changed their charter to allow women in the club in 1988. It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to this club! Some of our best members are women here today.
How did the Fruit Basket fundraiser come about?
Steve Nickols was the president and wanted a fundraiser. I’m not sure how he arrived at doing a Fruit Basket, but it was a perfect fit. It was Christmas time, it was affordable. Dan Collins and I chaired the first Fruit Basket effort.
We ended up doing about 700 baskets in a week! Ten years later, we did about 2,000 baskets in about four hours! Smarter minds got together and figured out how to do it better! This year we did over 1,000 baskets. The Beloit club and Parker’s DECA club got together to help us.
We’re about half the members we used to be. That’s true of most service clubs, where membership has declined. However, we’re on the upswing now.
What do you enjoy most about your projects and fundraisers?
What I enjoy the most is that we take those funds, anywhere from $30,000 – $35,000 annually and we put it back into the community in various grants and scholarships.
We give out three high school scholarships to Milton, Craig and Parker students. We support over 20 community activities. When people buy our products, either Fruit Baskets or the Pie Ride tickets, we give that right back to the community. We do a grant writing contest, sort through them, and give them out each year. That feels good.
Every five or six years we do a major project. The electronic sign in front of Rotary Gardens is one of those. We did that about 10 years ago. The clock downtown near the bus depot was donated by us. Our next project is the bridge lighting for the downtown. It will be set to music and quite interactive, as I understand.
What is your hope for the future of Janesville Morning Rotary?
Membership growth is important, and we need to encourage the young people to value the importance of service to your community. I’m on the City Council; I spent nine years on the school board. Many of my associates I have I met through my volunteer involvement and activities in our community.
The Pie Ride is a good example. There were hundreds of people coming together! That’s what we need to do.
Kelli Cameron, Janesville Morning Rotary Past President
When did you become involved in Janesville Morning Rotary?
I became involved in Morning Rotary when I took the Executive Director position here at Rotary Gardens about eight years ago in 2010.
I had joined Noon Rotary Club, but when I left the Rotary Gardens I got to choose whether I wanted to remain a member or in which club I might want to be involved, so I chose Janesville Morning Rotary. I went to the meetings, and a few years later got involved in with Student of the Month. I decided to get more involved and, eventually, became president of the club.
It’s a three-year term. The first year you become President Elect, then this past year I have been President and this next year, 2018-2019, I will serve as Past President. You stay on the board the fourth year, as well.
As Past President, I will lead the foundation board.
What have been some of your favorite projects?
Well, I love the Pie Ride and the Fruit Basket sales for different reasons. The Pie Ride is such an awesome opportunity to show off our community. People come from all over the area. We have 500-700 riders each year, so it’s really cool to promote Janesville. And it’s just fun!
The Fruit Baskets are cool because we get the Parker DECA students and they help us build 1500 fruit baskets in a few hours. It’s a celebration, that time of year around Christmas, and a fun way to bring our clubs together.
Honestly, my favorite thing is just to come to the meetings every week. Today was a good example of the camaraderie among us.
Tell me about the Lighting Project through ARISE Now.
Our club has decided to take the lead on the Lighting Project, and we are challenging all the other service clubs in the community. We put $25,000 into it, and we wrote a grant for another $10,000 from Rotary International. So now we have $35,000 for the challenge. We’re challenging the Noon Rotary, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club, Optimist Club, etc. The total needed for the project is around $750,000.
So, we’re hoping that the service clubs can provide a third of that, another third will come from private donors in the area, and another third from a public campaign, where maybe people can buy a light, so to speak, for $100, or something similar.
The lights will be on the new Milwaukee Street Bridge, the Court Street Bridge and the new Pedestrian Bridge. The lights will all be LED lighting and will change colors. So, we could have pink for breast cancer awareness or have a Craig-Parker battle. They can also be set to music, so very entertaining and interactive.
What are your hopes for the future of the club?
In all our hopes, we’d like to keep our membership around 40-50 members. Usually, the kind of people who are involved in service clubs are also already active in their community. Otherwise, it’s about retaining members and keeping them involved.
After interviewing these fine Janesville Morning Rotary Club members, I eat my breakfast amid the chatting crowd, still feeling like we’d just been served Grandma’s eggs and sausage at a family farm table. The conversation is eventually interrupted by a few board leaders’ speeches and the transition ceremony of the club presidency from Kelli Cameron to Larry Squire.
Larry stands, talking to the members, discussing some past international projects with hopes for future projects. During Larry’s plug, another Larry, this time Barton, the club’s first president, steps up to volunteer. He raises his hand high, in Janesville Morning Rotary leadership style, to head up the committee.
A bit of storytelling between founding members, Larry and Mox, ensues sprinkled with jokes resulting in bursts of laughter.
At this point, I’m feeling satisfied with my work, full from a delicious breakfast, and rather entertained by wonderful group of community-minded folks I’d only just met!
It is quite obvious to me, as it would be to any observer, that this is a club that not only gives generously back to our community, but it is one that supports its own members. They pride themselves on serving the youth in our community, on giving grants, on their purpose, their incredible projects, and being a club of inclusion.
Best of all, they truly enjoy meaningful giving and a delightful camaraderie.