Pleasanton Rotary Clubs celebrating 50 years of service here


When book publisher John C. Burkhardt accepted the charter for the new Rotary Club of Pleasanton in June 1965, he could not have imagined what Rotary would ultimately mean for his community.

In 1965, Pleasanton was a rural town of about 6,000 residents that was still not large enough for its first traffic light.

Main Street was lined with smoky bars that catered to gamblers from the nearby race track. The I-580/I-680 exchange, which would become a magnet for industrial and residential development, had not been completed. But, Pleasanton was destined to thrive while its Rotary clubs, guided by the singular principle of "Service Above Self" would help cultivate the city's social conscience.

At first, however, Pleasanton Rotary -- now also called the Downtown Club -- was about business. The original 26 charter members thought mainly about using Rotary to help one another grow their careers and businesses, according to retired optometrist Don Roberts, a charter member and active Rotarian.

By the time insurance broker Larry Annis joined the Downtown Club in 1980, community service had clearly become a priority.

On any given Thursday at its lunch meetings, first at the Pleasanton Hotel and now at Hap's Original Restaurant, the club would respond to reports of local military veterans in need or families imperiled by the cost of treating a disease afflicting a son or daughter. Such spontaneous acts of charity are still common for all three Rotary clubs serving Pleasanton.

The Downtown Club developed an annual cycle of local projects, such as "Rotary Gives Thanks," during which Rotarians clean yards and the homes of seniors needing assistance. The first Rotary Senior Holiday Dinner in 1981 became a tradition. By its 33rd edition in 2014, the club would serve roast turkey dinners to 285 elderly residents at the Pleasanton Senior Center.

Other local projects included Pioneer Cemetery beautification, Centennial Trail improvement performed with Pleasanton North Rotary, and a plaza for the Pleasanton Centennial Art Pillars on Main Street. Earlier this month, the club transported two retired fire trucks from the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department to Tulancingo, Mexico -- Pleasanton's sister city.

The Downtown Club's annual Father's Day Spirit Run, begun in 1993, would double as a popular family event and fundraiser. Over the years, the race has raised more than $900,000 in college scholarships for graduating Pleasanton students.

Downtown Club president Scott Raty also loves the Spirit Run for the warm feelings it engenders.

"It is amazing how many people I see in the race year after year, including my own family now pushing my grandchildren in strollers," he said. "There is that small-town character and charm."

Founded in 1987, the 46-member Rotary Club of Pleasanton North -- also called Pleasanton North Rotary (PNR) -- has a reputation for being young, brassy and diverse.

Members include City Councilman Jerry Pentin and Pleasanton Planning Commission members Herb Ritter and Gina Piper. Tom Hall, the club's 37-year-old president, recently recruited 10 new members.

"We aren't looking for people with specific backgrounds or specific ages, but we like people who have spirit," he said.

Tri-Valley Evening Rotary was formed in 2002 for community service-oriented adults who are unable to attend lunch meetings. With 15 members, it meets on Thursdays for dinner at Castlewood Country Club.

Tri-Valley Rotary sponsors an annual barbeque on Family Day at Livermore Veterans Hospital.

It annually collects, launders and distributes winter coats to needy children. It sponsors a Senior Holiday Night Out in Pleasanton and supports a business training program in Rajkot, India. It raises funds from its "Lights Out" golf tournament and movie musical sing-alongs, such as an upcoming viewing of "Frozen" April 11 at Amador Theater.

"We all want to serve and have service in our heart, but we are a little less rigorous from a true Rotary perspective," president Carol Vanden Muellen said.

Influence of Rotary International

Pleasanton's three Rotary Clubs are affiliated with Rotary District 5170, which has responsibility for 52 clubs from Palo Alto, south to Watsonville and north to Oakland.

Rotary International (RI) provides global guidance.

Founded by Chicago businessman Paul Harris in 1905, RI has 1.2 million members in 34,000 chapters around the world. "Service Above Self" has been Rotary's guiding principle since 1911. The Four-Way Test has set the standard for member behavior since 1933.

RI is committed to changing the world.

It established Polio Plus in 2005 to eradicate poliomyelitis at a time when 250,000 new cases of the debilitating childhood disease were reported annually. Rotary raised $247 million in the first year and made a commitment to immunize every child in the world, with volunteers including Pleasanton Rotary members traveling to Africa and India to administer the vaccine.

The World Health Organization, UNICEF, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have since joined the campaign. About 2.5 billion children have been immunized. Just 359 cases were reported in 2014, and polio is now endemic only in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Distributing Wheelchairs

Pleasanton's three Rotary Clubs have also strongly supported Blackhawk developer Ken Behring's Wheelchair Foundation, which builds the durable chairs in its own factory, sells them at cost to Rotary clubs across the nation and ships them to Rotarians around the world for distribution.

The wheelchairs are shipped to port cities where Rotary members pick them up for distribution to needy recipients, who are identified by local Rotary clubs in and around the communities where wheelchair presentation ceremonies take place.

The need for wheelchairs is overwhelming, with more than 100 million disabled people unable to walk and lacking the financial means to buy one. Thirty million are children, and subsequently, 90% never go to school because of their disability, according to a United Nations' study.

At the urging of Bob Athenour, a former Amador Valley High language teacher, the Downtown Club and PNR collaborated on their first wheelchair distribution project in Tulancingo in 2003. Eleven years later, the Downtown Club has thus far distributed 4,280 chairs on eight trips to Mexico and 10 trips to Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Peru.

At PNR, Don Routh, a retired Price Waterhouse Coopers executive, his son Josh Routh, who uses a wheelchair, and Bill Wheeler, CEO of Pleasanton's Black Tie Transportation, took the lead on 20 subsequent trips.

They also focused on Latin America, with trips to all the countries covered by the Downtown Club as well as Argentina, Columbia, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, where Price Waterhouse Coopers lent Routh a bullet-proof limousine to protect his group against kidnapping. From 2002 to 2012, PNR raised over $340,000 for 6,720 wheelchairs.

The Downtown Club has periodically supported Rotaplast since 2002 as well. The nonprofit association sends specialized volunteer surgical teams to hospitals in developing nations to perform reconstruction surgery on children with cleft lips and palates.

Tom Fox, a Downtown Club member, has participated in 25 such missions, including a recent 12-day trip to Retalhuleu, Guatemala. He was joined by fellow member Steve Brozosky, who handled registration and medical records. Fox dealt with logistics for the 25-person multi-national group.

Rotaplast's plastic surgeons in Retalhuleu performed 121 procedures to correct facial deformities for 98 children.

"You get immediate results," Fox said. "We see a child with a very deformed face before surgery. Two hours after surgery, we can see how that face and the child's prospects for a normal life have been changed."

Starry Nights

PNR supports local and other international projects with funds from its popular "A Starry Night" dinner-dance fundraisers. The events, called Cabarets from 1988 to 1999, have raised about $936,000.

Locally, they helped support the 1994 construction of Rotary Commons, a seven-unit affordable housing project for the city of Pleasanton.

In October 2011, the club donated $70,000 to build permanent classrooms and administrative facilities for the School of Imagination and Happy Talkers in Dublin. The school, founded by then-PNR member Mitch Sigman and wife Charlene, treats children with autism or slow language development. The facility's main classroom was named in PNR's honor.

At "A Starry Night in the Caribbean at Barone's" in 2014, guests donated $15,000 to Agape Villages of San Ramon, a regional program that assists foster care children, and more than $20,000 for international projects and other local charities.

PNR's Youth Service and Exchange coordinator Kevin Greenlee has developed one of Northern California's most successful Rotary Interact Club programs at Foothill High School. More than 100 students participate in the club where they earn community service hours and absorb Rotary principles to encourage continued good citizenship after graduation.

This year's most promising students will qualify for one of 12 scholarships, sponsored by PNR to the Rotary Youth Leadership Award (RYLA) program, a five-day leadership camp at Scotts Valley.

PNR is sponsoring a Rotary International exchange student from Germany who attends Foothill High and a San Ramon student who is studying in Germany. It hosts an annual youth speech contest, sponsors Foothill's Student of the Month program and annually awards three memorial scholarships to graduating Foothill seniors.

In support of the U.S. military, PNR collaborates with Pleasanton's other Rotary clubs on East Bay Stand Down, a biennial event that brings homeless veterans to the Alameda County Fairgrounds.

Over several days, they receive a spectrum of services that assists their reintegration into society. Pleasanton's Rotary clubs prepare Saturday dinner for 400 veterans and support personnel to signify the program's completion.

During the "50 Years" celebration, Rotary members would like to inform the public how it feels to be involved with so many worthwhile programs.

The new Rotary Park will commemorate a half-century of such efforts. The Museum on Main's oral history project will capture them for posterity. The museum's Rotary exhibit will highlight key historical events.

And a gala Golden Anniversary dinner-dance, open to all on May 8 at Castlewood Country Club (for tickets, see, will celebrate what John Burkhardt and his friends started 50 years ago.

* Editor's note: Jim Brice is a freelance writer, editor, and media relations consultant. He is a member of Pleasanton North Rotary.

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