Rotary Club of Latrobe celebrating 100th anniversary

Jerry Supko, Amy Peer, John Graziano, George Fetkovich, (back row) Ron Pastor, Tim Dingman, Ed Sulkowski, Mike Porembka, John Watson, Todd Edmiston and Mark Kessler gathered for a photo during the Rotary Club of Latrobe’s Elimination Dinner last year. The club will mark its 100th anniversary with a celebration Saturday.

The Rotary Club of Latrobe, naturally, has evolved over the last hundred years. At meetings, members no longer share cigars or sing in groups, and women now play a big role in the organization after first being allowed to join in 1989.

But other traditions remain strongly intact, say current and past club presidents, including an emphasis on fellowship and above all: “Service above self,” the Rotary’s motto.

Rotary formed in Latrobe on May 1, 1921, and two weeks later the organization held its first meeting at the Hotel Miller on the corner of Ligonier and Depot streets. Now, exactly one century later, the organization will celebrate its 100th anniversary back in downtown Latrobe with a dinner at DiSalvo’s Station Restaurant.

President Amy Peer said the train station was chosen to accommodate guests amid COVID-19 restrictions, but also because, “It’s in Latrobe. It’s the history of where we started.”

A cocktail hour will last from 6-7 p.m., with dinner to follow. There will also be a 50/50 raffle.

“We’re having this as a celebration of our 100 years, and to raise a little bit of money,” she said.

All proceeds from Saturday evening’s event will go towards the Rotary’s backpack program, which provides weekly meals to 170 elementary and middle schoolers at Greater Latrobe.

The program, which started in January 2015 serving 27 initial students, costs roughly $60,000 a year to operate, Peer said. Grants, donations, fundraising and special projects help fund the club’s efforts to end hunger among school-age children.

“With everything happening with the pandemic, the need is just getting greater,” Peer said.

Latrobe Rotary’s annual community projects dinner, typically held at St. Vincent College’s Fred Rogers Center, was cancelled this year due to COVID-19. Established in 1989, the annual dinner brings together Rotarians to enjoy an evening of food and fellowship, while enabling the club to serve the community in a wider variety of projects.

Peer, a manager at Latrobe Auto Group, reflected on what the Rotary’s motto means to her.

“If it weren’t for this community, small businesses and family businesses wouldn’t survive,” she said. “I’m in Rotary to help and serve the community, and in turn help the community help us.”

Five years ago, Peer joined Rotary, around the same time her father Lud Druchniak stepped down. He became a member in 1986.

Peer recalls when her father was a committee member for the club’s since discontinued annual high school basketball tournament, which began in 1989. At its peak, the tournament brought eight highly-talented teams together for competition and spawned into a fundraiser which in some years yielded $2,000 for the club’s special projects fund.

As the quality of competition grew, USA Today in 1993 stated that on the weekend of that year’s tournament, “Latrobe was the place to be.”

The last tournament was held in 2001, but the Rotary turned its focus towards the club’s Latrobe Country Club set annual golf outing, which also supports the Rotary’s backpack program.

“I was able to go participate in the basketball tournaments and see these kids from inner cities coming in and playing here,” she said. “Latrobe’s famous for basketball, so I enjoyed doing that. That’s how I got my first taste of Rotary.”

Druchniak is also how past-president and current member Mark Kessler said he was introduced to Latrobe Rotary.

Kessler, a sales consultant at Latrobe Auto Group, is a 21-year Rotary member. He also served as president in 2004-05, and district governor in 2014-15.

With Rotary’s 1.2 million members internationally, Kessler said, “We all follow the same thing in that we want to help make the world a better place, and our community a better place.”

As part of its international service, Kessler said one of Rotary’s biggest missions right now is to eradicate polio, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. For the past 35 years, Rotary has been working to eradicate polio, and its goal of ridding the world of this disease is closer than ever.

As a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Rotary has reduced polio cases by 99.9% since its first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979, according to the Rotary’s website.

“It will be the second disease to be eliminated from the face of the earth. The first was smallpox,” Kessler said.

A few years before Kessler joined the organization, the club embarked on its biggest project to date: Latrobe Rotary Community Park at Youngstown Field near Greater Latrobe high school.

In 1995, with Greater Latrobe School Board approval, the club committed $75,000 ahead of its 75th anniversary to make improvements at Youngstown Field.

“That’s the gem. That’s the largest project that was ever done,” Kessler said.

Through the Latrobe Rotary’s efforts, the park was upgraded with a new soccer and softball field, two pavilions and restroom facilities. The club also initiated an ongoing tree maintenance program and has supported environmental science studies with Greater Latrobe students in their efforts to address eroding stream banks along Nine Mile Run, which is also used for the Rotary’s fishing derbies.

While Peer’s presidency was hampered by the pandemic, she is hoping her efforts to establish a satellite club will continue in the future. Latrobe Rotary currently holds weekly luncheons noon on Wednesdays at the airport’s DeNunzio’s. However, Peer said younger members aren’t always able to meet at that time, so she is looking to set up an alternative monthly evening meeting.

“That’s hopefully going to be my legacy,” she said.

An informational meeting for the satellite club is set for 5:15 p.m. on June 9 at Unity Brewing.

Both Peer and Kessler said the Rotary is always looking for new members.

“Anyone that wants to help the community, wants to help local businesses … That’s what Rotary is all about,” Peer said.

Added Kessler: “The biggest thing I would like to see is the club to grow and continue. Because at some point I will not be here, and I’d like to know that the club goes on for another 100 years.”

Kessler also said post-pandemic, the Rotary Club of Latrobe will look to resume its fundraisers, community involvement and “having fun in general.”

“Because Rotary is about having fun. If you’re not having fun, there’s no sense doing it,” he said.

The world’s first Rotary Club was organized in Chicago on Feb. 23, 1905, by Paul Harris, a young lawyer, who gathered together, in friendship, a group of four men, each from a different form of public service. At first, the members of the new club did not meet at luncheon, but met in rotation at the various places of business of the members, thus the name “Rotary,” was adopted.

The objectives of that first Rotary Club focused primarily on fellowship and on the business welfare of each other. In 1907, however, the new club led a campaign to install “comfort stations” (public restrooms) in Chicago’s city hall — its first service project — and the course of Rotary was firmly set. By 1911, all Rotarians were using the unofficial slogans, “He projects most who serves best,” and, “Service above self.” They were eventually made official by convention in 1950.

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This article includes information provided by Latrobe Historical Society President Mary Lou Townsend.

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