Hickory Rotary Club History: 1921 – 2021

The Rotary Club of Hickory, North Carolina, the first service club organized in Catawba County, celebrates a century of service in 2021. Chartered in 1921, during the first sixteen years of Rotary International, and ranked as the largest club in its district, the Club has earned recognition from its Rotary peers and other community organizations for its spirit of service. Its contributions have also given direction to the advances of the city and county it serves. In contrast to its uncommon reputation and influence, however, its origin was ordinary: its birth emerged from the vision of a single individual.

The founder of the Hickory Rotary Club was Watt Shuford (1873-1935), a member of one of Hickory’s pioneer families who pursued interests in dairying and farming. He managed the Hickory Seed Company for 20 years. In 1912, he helped organize the Catawba Creamery and, for many years as its president and manager, guided its growth into one of the largest cooperative creameries in the South. Shuford served on many local agricultural boards and was appointed by two state governors to terms on the State Board of Agriculture, serving for ten years.

While in Asheville for a 1920 creamery convention, Shuford attended a Rotary club meeting and became interested in forming a club in Hickory. Members of the Asheville club encouraged him to do so, helping with their guidance and assistance.

Ten members of the Asheville club, led by International Sergeant at Arms Emmet E. Galer, attended the organizational meeting of the Rotary Club of Hickory. The meeting, held on Friday, Feb. 11, 1921, at Hotel Huffry, was attended by 18 charter members. Shuford was named president. Elected vice president was Kenneth C. Menzies, cashier of First National Bank. The position of treasurer was filled by George R. Wootten, secretary-treasurer of the First Building & Loan Association. Albert C. Hewitt, president of Hickory Ice & Coal Company, was elected sergeant-at-arms. Named secretary was Frank A. Henderson, vice president and treasurer of Hickory Overall Company. Also elected to the board of directors were Neil W. Clark, president of Yoder-Clark Clothing Company; and George L. Lyerly, manager of Shuford Hardware Company.

The other charter members were: Fred A. Abernethy, livestock dealer; Bascom B. Blackwelder, Shuford Mills executive; John H. P. Cilley, manager of Piedmont Foundry & Machine Company; J. Lenoir Cilley, assistant cashier of First National Bank; Hugh D’Anna, manager of Hickory Hosiery Mills; Joseph D. Elliott, president and treasurer of Elliott Building Company Contractors; Sam H. Farabee, editor of the Hickory Daily Record; Rusk G. Henry, city manager; Robert E. Martin, partner of Whitener & Martin Retail Grocery; A. Alex Shuford, secretary and treasurer of A. A. Shuford Mill Company; and Jake H. Shuford, surgeon and owner of Richard Baker Hospital.

The charter for the Club, issued by Rotary International on Mar. 1, was formally presented at a regular meeting on May 12 by District Governor Buck Perrin of Spartanburg, S.C. The Club was the 485th to be formed by the international organization. It was placed in the 280th district which, in addition to Western North Carolina, included the state of South Carolina and some clubs in Virginia and Tennessee.

At its first regular meeting, over a 1 p.m. lunch on Feb. 17 at the hotel, the Club voted to meet every Thursday at the same hour except on the last Thursday of each month when it would meet at 7:30 p.m.

In its first December as an organization, the new Club demonstrated its service potential. It distributed 50 cents in new 5-cent pieces to each of the 23 residents in the County Home and gave 28 baskets–consisting of flour, chicken, nuts, fruit, candy, sugar and toys–to the needy. On the day following Christmas, it treated more than 1,000 children to a moving picture show in the City Auditorium. At its next regular meeting, the members took a collection of $34 to supply fuel and food to five families who were in “dire circumstance.”

Eighteen months later, in 1923, the Club chose for its secretary Edgar L. Fox, an insurance agent. Fox later set a record for tenure in office, serving for 25 years. He set aside the duties for only one year, in 1935-36, when he served as president. One of his successors, George Warlick, served as secretary for 19 years.

Hickory HotelTwo club decisions in 1926 set precedents for many years to follow. The meeting site was shifted from the Huffry Hotel to the new Hotel Hickory (pictured left), where the Club continued to gather for 44 years. The Club also engaged as its pianist a Hickory music teacher, Mary McFarland, who provided background lunch music at the meetings for more than 51 years.

In one ten-year span, the new club sponsored the organization of five other clubs: Jefferson (1928), Lenoir (1930), Marion (1934), Granite Falls (1936), and Taylorsville (1938).

The prominence of the Club in the life of the community was boosted by the publicity it received in the Hickory Daily Record. When Editor L.C. Gifford joined the club in 1930, the daily newspaper gave front-page space to the club’s weekly meetings, initiating a practice which helped keep the organization in the public eye for more than 60 years.

At the tender age of twelve, the Hickory club in 1933-34 stepped into the District 58 spotlight by contributing the services of one of its members – H. Brent Schaeffer, president of Lenoir Rhyne College – for the position of district governor. The 34-member club also undertook the hosting of 800 Rotarians and Rotary Anns attending the 1934 conference of the district. Registration headquarters were established at Hotel Hickory, and the conference sessions were held in the City Auditorium. In later years, the Club hosted district activities in 1940, 1950, 1958, 1964 and 1975.

The Club first attempted to establish a weekly bulletin in 1941, but the publication – named “Spokes” – died after one year when the editor, George Warlick, re-entered military service. The project was revived in 1946 by James Shuford under the title of “The Rotary Spoke of Hickory.” Shuford’s professional approach to the task resulted in a lively publication that was quoted in other club publications throughout the world, in Rotary International magazine and in Reader’s Digest. His retirement as editor in 1966 attracted more than 100 letters of tribute from Rotary leaders.

One distinctive tradition of the Hickory Rotary Club – presenting out-of-state visitors with a hickory stick – began about 1947. At one time, in the 1950s, the stick was decorated with a plastic cord manufactured by Shuford Mills.

Under the guidance of Walter Nau, a Lenoir-Rhyne College professor, the Club in 1949 designed an international scholarship program for the Rotary district. Since then, it has led the district in the program’s support and implementation. The scholarship, later named to honor Chan Gordon of the Asheville club, has funded the college study of more than 60 district and foreign scholars. In addition, the Club has operated its own scholarship program for local students and supported the Ambassadorial Scholarships of Rotary International. Nau’s service to the district in 1949 was only a beginning. He gave leadership as district governor in 1950-51. He served in other capacities for 45 years, becoming known throughout the district as “Mr. Rotary.”

Andy GriffithOver the years, Ladies Night programs often highlighted the Rotary year. In 1953, the speaker was Andy Griffith (pictured left), of Chapel Hill, who directed a scene from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” with the aid of “volunteers” from the audience.

Billy Joe PattonPrograms for the weekly Rotary meetings usually featured guest speakers. One of the more popular speakers in 1954 was Billy Joe Patton (pictured right), the Morganton amateur golfer who almost won the Masters Tournament at Augusta several weeks earlier. Other noted speakers over the years included Carl Goerch, editor of “The State” (1941); North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Luther Hodges, a trustee of Rotary International (1954); Bill Friday, president of the University of North Carolina (1971); and Jesse Helms, a candidate for U. S. Senate (1972). Charles Snipes has shouldered the blame for presiding over the longest meeting: at a 1972-73 session, because of the induction of new members and the introduction of student visitors, the speaker – Coach Clarence Stasavich of East Carolina College – did not begin speaking until five minutes before the scheduled adjournment, and the meeting did not adjourn until 1:50 p.m., 20 minutes late.

The Golden Anniversary of the founding of Rotary International in 1955 was celebrated by the Hickory club with an inter-city dinner meeting at Hickory Junior High School. Three hundred Rotarians and their guests from the Hickory, Newton-Conover, Valdese and Granite Falls clubs attended. Speaker for the event was Percy Hodgson, former President of Rotary International and a globe-circling industrialist and civic leader of Pawtucket, R. I. To James Peden, the Hickory club president, fell the duty to host the speaker for the weekend and wrestle with his “steamer trunk and seven pieces of luggage” from and to the Charlotte airport. On Hodgson’s departure, the guest commented on the youth of the Hickory president, to which Peden responded that “over the weekend I’ve aged quite a bit.”

An unusual number of distinguished visitors dropped in on meetings of the Club during the 1956-57 year. The guest list included the surprise visitors of Coach Frank McGuire and his champion University of North Carolina basketball team, which was enroute from Cullowhee to Chapel Hill on Jan. 31; John Morley, foreign correspondent and world traveler and lecturer (Apr. 11); and Richard Simmons of Englewood, Calif., better known as Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (May 23). Among the meeting guests in other years was Hon. Claude Pepper, U. S. Senator from Florida (Sept. 22, 1941).

Archie Shuford, operator of Whiting Hosiery Mill, was elected district governor for the 1963-64 year, becoming the third member of the Hickory club to serve in that capacity. At the time, District No. 767 was comprised of 41clubs stretching from Hickory, Statesville and Charlotte west to the Tennessee state line. During the year, the Hickory club inducted its 100th member.

The Club celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1970-71 by initiating the development of the 19-acre Rotary Park and exploring the potential for organizing a second Rotary club in Hickory. It also moved from its Hotel Hickory meeting place – first to Lenoir-Rhyne College, then to the Holiday Inn and finally to Mom & Pops Restaurant, trucking a piano to some meetings. Later, in 1993, the meeting place was moved to Lake Hickory Country Club.

Following delays caused by problems in defining territories, the Hickory East Rotary Club (later renamed Lake Hickory Rotary Club) was organized in 1973 under the sponsorship of the Hickory club. The event increased the number of area clubs organized by Hickory to seven.

In 1982, the Club joined hands with the City of Hickory to develop a second park – a 60-acre natural-area park near Lake Hickory. The development of the park, later named for Rotarian and City Alderman Glenn Hilton, included construction of picnic shelters, a children’s playground, and four trails. The project was recognized in 1984 as the best project in the Rotary district. The Club also received that year a district Presidential Citation Award for its success in adding 15 new members, increasing the membership to 187.

In 1987-88, the Club initiated Rotary Unlimited, an auction of contributed items designed to raise funds for scholarships and other club projects. The following year, it inaugurated the Christmas Project, including the contribution of food and Christmas trees to needy families and a Rotarian-guided shopping spree for needy children.

In 1994, the Club instituted the practice of closing each meeting with an affirmation of the Four-Way Test. Prior to that, the meetings adjourned without a recitation, although in the very early years, the meetings closed with the repeating of the motto, “He profits most who serves best.” The Club also published its first pictorial directory of the membership in more than 20 years. In other procedural changes, the Club in 1991 renewed the wearing of nametags and altered the process of nominating members of the Board of Directors.

In 1995, the Club-sponsored Interact Club at Hickory High School, which had become one of the largest in the Rotary district, was recognized as the most outstanding in the district.

As the world moved toward the new millennium, Hickory Rotary Club continued to increase its fundraising goals and charitable giving initiatives. During the clubs 75th year (1996-1997), the club hosted the sixth Rotary Unlimited fundraiser, and began exploring alternate fundraising opportunities. As more and more of the club’s charitable giving focused on the theme of educating Catawba County students for a brighter future, discussion began about a new fundraiser. After extensive research and planning a new fundraiser, Education Alive, became a reality during the 1998-1999 Rotary year. Education Alive involved not only our Club but the entire community. Area businesses and individuals donated merchandise for auction and Catawba Valley Community College provided their basketball arena to host the event which was broadcast live by Catawba Valley Cable TV. During its second year, 1999-2000, Education Alive peaked, raising an astonishing $250,000 that year, followed up by $192,000 the following year. Education Alive, alternating occasionally with Rotary Unlimited, continued its successful run for a number of years and was finally phased out during the 2008-2009 Rotary year after raising almost a million dollars for student loans and other local educational initiatives.

During the 2007-2008 year the Club made the decision to transition from providing student loans to offering student scholarships as part of the club’s charitable giving.

During the 2008-2009 year a new fundraiser, Rotarian Idol, was introduced to the community. Modeled after the successful Fox TV show, American Idol, Rotarian Idol is a singing contest for amateurs. Twenty contestants compete for First, Second, Third and Audience Favorite prize money. The annual event is held at P.E. Monroe Auditorium on the campus of Lenoir Rhyne University. Area businesses, as well as individuals, support the fundraiser by purchasing program ads, event tickets, and event sponsorships. Entering its eighth year in 2017, the event has raised over $370,000 to aid in funding the Club’s educational and charitable giving initiatives, as well as local and international humanitarian needs.

2013 Rotarian Idol Group Photo

In an effort to further the club’s successful fundraising activities, the club began the process of becoming a 501(c) (3) tax exempt non profit during the 2010-2011 Rotary year. Also the club made the decision to match charitable giving requests to fundraising activities from the previous year. Up until that point funds were raised and dispersed during the same Rotary year which often left the club blind with respect to income and expense. By using funds raised in the previous year to budget current charitable giving, club leadership knew exactly how much money was available at the beginning of each Rotary year, and could more precisely match charitable giving requests with available funds. The transition took three years to complete and is now operationally successful.

In addition to successful fundraising, the Club has had other recent notable achievements. During the 1999-2000 year the club chartered a Rotaract Club at Lenoir Rhyne University. “Rotaract clubs bring together people ages 18-30 to exchange ideas with leaders in the community, develop leadership and professional skills, and have fun through service”. During the 2000-2001 Rotary year, Hickory Rotary Club chartered the new Hickory Sunrise Rotary Club which began meeting at 7:00 AM on the campus of Lenoir Rhyne University. Also the Club began supporting the Coins for Alzheimer’s Trust by placing CART buckets on the tables during club meetings. Members are encouraged to place loose change in the buckets to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

The Hickory Rotary Club also embraced the diversity the Rotary International Council on Legislation endorsed when the Council voted to eliminate the requirement in the RI Constitution that membership in Rotary clubs is limited to men and clubs began to welcome women into membership in Rotary clubs around the world. Bonnie Mitchell became the first female inducted into the Hickory Rotary Club in 1994. In 2001-2002, Susan Huffman became the first female President of the Hickory Rotary Club and was followed by five more female presidents through 2016. Since then, female members are regularly inducted into membership and the Hickory Rotary Club would not be nearly as successful without their contributions and leadership.

In the spring of 2011, the Catawba County Partnership for Children along with the support of the Rotary Club of Hickory was able to bring Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library Program to the children of Catawba County. Children enrolled in Imagination Library are mailed a free, age-appropriate book each month until they turn 5 years old. Since its inception in April 2011, the Rotary Club of Hickory has contributed $227,000 and mailed out 109,135 books covering the costs for about 825 children each year.  The Dollywood Foundation significantly offsets the cost of the books and mailing, so each book that is sent to a Catawba County child is free for families, but costs the Catawba County Partnership for Children about $2.00. The Rotary Club of Hickory made an initial financial contribution of $15,000 in April of 2011 and since then the Rotary Club of Hickory has donated an additional $212,000 to the Catawba County Partnership for Children for the Imagination Library program. The ongoing financial support of the Rotary Club of Hickory has allowed the Partnership to build the local Imagination Library Program to serve over 5,300 Catawba County children each month. A recent evaluation of the program indicates that together we are making a considerable impact on early literacy in our community. 87% of parents report that they are reading more often to their children and that their children are becoming excited about reading. 99% of parents reported that they feel that reading to their child is helping them to be more prepared for success in kindergarten. The Partnership would not have been able to start and continue to grow the Imagination Library program without the support of the Hickory Rotary Club. On behalf of these children and families, and ultimately the elementary, middle and high school teachers of these Catawba County children, the Partnership for Children thanks the Hickory Rotary Club!

In 2014, the Hickory Rotary Club Hickory Rotary Club donated $14,000 to pay for the concept drawings for a new park, in downtown Hickory. The park was the brainchild of the Friends of Hickory organization, and Hickory Rotary Club’s donation was the first step necessary for the project to proceed. The downtown park will incorporate play space, an interactive educational water feature on the Catawba River basin, as well as a place to sit and enjoy the surroundings. The historic downtown area currently attracts a wide variety of businesses and visitors to Hickory. “The addition of a park will add to the appeal of shopping, dining, and doing business on Union Square, offering an active destination for our youngest visitors and their families”.

As the decade of the 2010’s wound to a close, the Rotary Club of Hickory continued to host the annual Rotarian Idol event. The successful fundraiser was modified slightly in 2019 to celebrate the event’s tenth competition. The field featured only past winners and runners up, and was marketed successfully as the Rotarian Idol All Stars competition. In a serendipitous twist, the winner of the first competition in 2011, Carol Ann Hartman, was judged the winner of the All Star event.

On February 23, 2019 the Rotary Club of Hickory joined Rotary District 7670 and Rotary International worldwide recognitions by participating in a local service project. The three Rotary clubs in Hickory chose a project to benefit the Greater Hickory Cooperative Christian Ministry and their mission to provide Hope, Help and Healing to those most in need through Service, Advocacy & Community Support. During the event, the City of Hickory officially recognized all three Rotary Clubs that call Hickory home. Hickory Mayor Hank Guess presented a proclamation recognizing February 23, 2019 as Rotary Day in the City of Hickory in recognition of the contributions to the community made by the Rotary Club of Hickory, Lake Hickory Rotary Club and Hickory Sunrise Rotary Club.

The Rotary Club of Hickory began the decade of the 2020’s full of momentum from past achievements and on course to celebrate a “Century of Service” during the 2020-2021 Rotary year. Plans were discussed to distribute $100,000 throughout the community in celebration of the club’s 100th anniversary. Then the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic reared its ugly head early in 2020 and changed the world in ways unimaginable. The virus not only increased worldwide need for services but created an atmosphere where government, service providers, civic organizations, etc. were limited in their ability to deliver much needed help by social distancing restrictions that made it difficult to safely meet in groups, a key component of Rotary and other civic organization’s ability to raise funds necessary to provide help and relief to those in need.

As the club begins celebrating a “Century of Service” in 2021, the Rotary Club of Hickory is successfully meeting the challenge to serve safely as the virus continues to challenge humanity. Although the club could no longer meet weekly in person, members continued to meet virtually on a weekly basis using Zoom, a leader in modern video communications, with a reliable cloud platform for video and audio conferencing. Despite these challenges the Rotary Club of Hickory still managed to distribute over $58,000 in 2019-2020 for educational and other charitable needs in the Hickory area.

Throughout its history, the Club has made annual gifts to charitable organizations and interests. Through the years, the club’s giving philosophy locally has focused on education and the club’s charitable giving has included Service Above Self Scholarships, Wilmer Jenkins Teacher of the Year, Imagination Library, Southwest Elementary School, Hickory Museum of Art Paul Whitener Art Show, Catawba County Council for Adolescents, Catawba Valley Community College, City of Hickory Glenn Hilton Park, Family Guidance Center, Adult Life Program, Family Care Center, and Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club and CART

Over the last 100 years through two world wars, global pandemics and other social and financial challenges worldwide, the Rotary Club of Hickory’s initial membership of 18 has grown and contracted and now includes approximately 105 members. Its early focus on the local organization has broadened to embrace the district. Its benevolent concerns have shifted from the agrarian to the urban community and expanded beyond the city limits to attend to international needs. But, through time, changes and challenges, the Club has maintained its basic commitment to service. As Rotary looks to the future, it acknowledges that its continued effectiveness rests on its renewed dedication to the object of Rotary: “to encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise” and to Rotary’s motto of “Service Above Self.”