History of Our Club

History of Our Club 

In early 1926, John Burt a Rotarian in San Rafael, was recruited by Rotary headquarters in Chicago when he wrote, “District Two governor Tom Bridges writes us that there is a mighty good little town up near you folks, which in his opinion, ought to have a Rotary Club.” That’s how it all started.

The Rotary Club of Mill Valley was officially chartered on July 20, 1926 as Rotary club number 2370. The sponsoring club was San Rafael Rotary. Its first meeting was at the Masonic Hall, then as now located at 19 Corte Madera Avenue across the street from City Hall. The club met over the years in a variety of locations but since day one Tuesday was always meeting day for the weekly lunch complete with business session and speaker.

The world's first service club, the Rotary Club of Chicago, was formed on February 23, 1905 by Paul P. Harris, an attorney whose goal was to capture in a professional club the same friendly spirit he had experienced in the small towns of his youth. Rotary’s name derived from the early practice of rotating meetings among members' offices.

The second Rotary Club was in San Francisco, founded in 1908 in the aftermath of the great fire and earthquake just as The City was rebuilding itself from the ashes.

By 1926 Rotary had grown to more than 2,200 clubs in thirty-five countries with 118,000 members. Currently there over are 34,000 clubs with over 1.2 million members worldwide

As Rotary grew, its mission expanded beyond serving club members’ professional and social interests. Rotarians began pooling their resources and contributing their talents to help serve communities in need. The organization’s dedication is best expressed in its motto: Service Above Self. The movement’s outlook went past the founding clubs in the United States and Canada. With its new world vision Rotary added the word “International” to its official name. For many, it’s greatest accomplishment was the virtual eradication of the scourge of polio. In recent decades, well-traveled Mill Valley Rotarians have fully embraced this world view supporting and participating in projects worldwide.

Well into the second half of the twentieth century, classifications (business categories) were a guiding force in Rotary. Classifications were strictly rationed and if a perspective member could not fit into an eligible classification or if no slots were open, admission to membership was closed. Even if a classification was open, the potential new Rotarian had to be a manager, owner or senior professional . . . no exceptions! The practice was a residue of Rotary’s initial practical mission of promotion business and contacts among the commercial, municipal and professional leaders in communities who formed the backbone of every Rotary club.

Emphasizing the then key role of the classification system, the introductory letter to the new Mill Valley club from Rotary International’s assistant secretary says “A Rotary club is an aggregating of classifications, no classification should be duplicate any other. The single representative from each classification is a fundamental in Rotary. If that fundamental isn’t adhered to, then it’s not a Rotary club - it’s something else. The classification should represent the business activities of the concern - not the function of the representative. For instance: A cashier of a bank should be given the classification of ”banking” and not “cashier.”

So who were Mill Valley Rotarians back in 1926? First, they were all men. There were no women Rotarians for sixty-one years until 1987.

Second, the initial members were the small city’s business and government leaders. The following list is illustrative: Manager of the Western Union Telegraph office, Postmaster, Marin Municipal Water District regional supervisor, manager of Mill Valley Lumber, newspaper publisher, town marshal, Bank of America cashier (similar to today’s branch manager), druggist, building contractor, real estate broker, retail proprietor, Superintendent of Mill Valley Public Schools, auto dealer, attorney, grocer, haberdasher, and last but certainly not least, pool room owner.

The first president was Harry Petrie, Vice President of the Muir Woods Toll Road Company. He was also associated with the legendary Mt. Tamalpais & Muir Woods Scenic Railway.

The first fine ever leveled against a Mill Valley Rotarian was paid by club president Petrie for “forgetting to address members by their first names.” After that symbolic act, charter member Ralston White had the honor of making the first real cash fine by paying with a five-dollar gold piece. Even from the first days, fines were used to fund the club’s youth work including supporting the Scouts and Tamalpais High grads.

New members were required to sign a Code of Ethics, one section of which began with the promise “to conduct my business in such manner that I may give perfect service equal to or better than my competitor and when in doubt to give added service beyond the strict measure of debt of obligation.”

By the start of World War II the club had thirty-five members and according to the essay The Early Years “ . . . although the average age was as high as in most Rotary Clubs, no fewer than twenty per cent of the members left to join the armed forces.”

By 1948 Rotary was so well established, the Mill Valley club was able to take the lead sponsoring the formation of Sausalito Rotary. The two clubs have ever since shared a strong bond.

Through the depression, the war years and the postwar boom, Mill Valley Rotary was at the heart of the town’s commercial and professional life. The pages of the weekly Mill Valley Record chronicle a continuous stream of speakers, community betterment projects and social events. A typical Rotary speaker’s topic was noted in the local press on August 16, 1927 under the headline “Golden Gate is to be Spanned.”

The only aspect obviously missing from the club were women members.

On March 16, 1987, Mill Valley Rotary moved into the modern world by breaking one of oldest Rotary practices. The action almost got the club thrown out of Rotary International. The club was the first Rotary in Marin County and one of the first in the entire state of California to admit women as full members. The first two Mill Valley Rotarians were local bankers, Terri Swenson and Margie Stephenson.

The move came after American culture shifted to a more pluralistic society. A state court ruled in 1986 that services clubs such as Rotary could not discriminate against women. Rotary International appealed the decision, but Mill Valley members decided to move forward without waiting for the appeal process to wind is way through the courts.

Ten years later Anne Beirne became the first woman to serve as Mill Valley club president, followed by Lisa Flannigan, Elizabeth Suzuki, Marguerite Burbank and Kim Jessup. There have been eighty-four club presidents over the years, an accomplishment that’s always been considered by Mill Valleyians as a high community honor.

For forty years one Rotarian frugally guided the Club’s financial affairs: club treasurer George Hoyle. A prominent town druggist and owner of the old Rutherford’s Pharmacy on Lytton Square, Hoyle served from 1960 until his death in 2004. His last will and testament provided for an extraordinarily generous bequest to the Mill Valley Rotary Service Fund, the club’s affiliated nonprofit charity founded in 1993. In his honor, donors to the Service Fund now become George Hoyle Fellows. Due to a major club donation, the senior lounge at the new Mill Valley Community Center was named in honor of Hoyle, one of the club’s most respected members for half a century.

As its eight-seventh anniversary rapidly approaches, Mill Valley Rotary remains as it was in 1926, an active and vibrant force for civic good and fellowship.


By: Dick Spotswood, Club Historian