Service Above Self:
History of the Las Cruces Rotary Club
This history is from a pamphlet commissioned by the Rotary Club of Las Cruces in 1989 and written by Jennifer L. Holberg.
The Early Years
Nine years after the establishment of the El Paso Rotary Club, twenty-five prominent Las Cruces businessmen and professionals gathered to begin the Rotary Club of Las Cruces. On Thursday, 25 October 1923, U. S. Senator Holm Bursom spoke before them at a banquet hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, with District Governor Allie Martin, El Paso Rotary Club President Croom, and twenty-four El Paso Rotarians also in attendance. H. L. Kent, president of New Mexico A&M, R. E. McBride, a doctor, and H. J. “Legs” Reemtsma, a minister, were appointed as officers pro tem. By 29 November 1923, the club held its organizational meeting where they pledged “active aid in the Chamber of Commerce budget drive and in their programs for the coming year.” Finally, on 24 February 1924, the club received its charter. On this date the club combined charter night festivities with the first ladies’ night. The members and their wives gathered at the Temple of Agriculture, located on Griggs Avenue, and were presented with Charter No. 1569 by District Governor Allie Martin. The feature of the evening was entertainment provided by Rotary Chorus members Reemtsma, Reiter, Phenicie, Stablein, Bright and Goddard, accompanied by George Clark.
By March of 1924, the club was already hard at work: the club had endorsed school bonds 100% and had established an auditing and a nominating committee. In April the pro tem officers were officially elected; Glenn Bright, George Clark, F. E. Lester, and Uil Lane were named as directors; and a constitution and by-laws were passed. Dr. Robert McBride’s copy of the first constitution describes some of the original club’s first practices. Meetings were to be held every Wednesday from 12:10 p.m. to 1:20 p.m., and an annual meeting was designated for the fourth Wednesday of April each year. The club set an entry admission fee at $15 while yearly dues were $25. Doña Ana County became the club’s territorial boundary.
That same month, the club undertook its first service project: “Boy Scouts and Boys in the Community.” This first project proved to be immensely successful. Encouraged by the Boy Scout band from El Paso, one hundred five boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen joined the first Boy Scout troop in Las Cruces at a meeting held at the armory on 3 May 1924. This initial support of scouting was just the beginning—Las Cruces Rotarians continued to be actively involved with this project throughout the coming decades. It effectively set the tone for the Rotary Club of Las Cruces’ emphasis on youth projects that would be conducted throughout the entire history of the club.
Indeed, the club’s second project was to launch a back-to-school drive to encourage eighth graders to continue their education into high school. The need for this was great, according to Adlai Feather, in a speech given at the fiftieth anniversary of the Las Cruces Rotary Club, because only one of three students attended school after the eighth grade; those that did were largely college preparatory students. The Rotary Club also initiated a high school, organizing the Union High School District. The school was completed in 1925 and until that time, space was rented in the armory in order to continue to conduct classes.
Although records are scarce for Rotary activities in the 1920s and 1930s, a few can be documented. For example, on 21 October 1924, the Las Cruces club was chosen to serve as Rotary District Convention City. The following year, on the 13th and 14th of March, thirteen clubs from then District 42 converged on Las Cruces for the annual event. Five years later at another district convention, the first Las Cruces Rotarian, Dr. Robert McBride, was elected as district governor. Also during the ‘20s and ‘30s, the club operated a swimming pool. According to Leo Valdes, the pool was located next to the present St. Paul’s Methodist Church. It appears, however, that it was an unsuccessful venture and by the late 1930s, the pool was closed.
Although early documented activities are few, the distinction of the early members is undeniable. The club’s first president, Harry L. Kent, also served New Mexico College of A&M as president. The first district governor from the club, Dr. Robert McBride, was a prominent doctor and also established one of the first hospitals in Las Cruces. According to Bill Erwin, McBride’s hospital, located on N. Water Street, contained five rooms and was “the only hospital in town at that time.” Other members like Fabian Garcia provided immeasurable benefits to the College. R. W. Goddard, Dean of Engineering at the College, established New Mexico’s first radio station, KOB, on the campus of New Mexico A&M. Adlai Feather, who joined the club in 1935, was New Mexico’s first Rhodes Scholar. Other members included school superintendent Carl Conlee, newspaper publisher D. W. Bronson, and outstanding English professor Col. A. W. “Sandy” Chilton. The club contained many of the finest men in the Las Cruces business and professional community. Indeed the caliber of these men attracted other like-minded men. Leo Valdes, an automobile dealer, viewed the Rotarians of the 1930’s as “the most influential men of the community—or at least I thought so—and I naturally wanted to be one of them.” Their commitment to service motivated him to accept an invitation to join in April 1939, because he felt:
When I was in business naturally I felt it was my obligation to contribute as much as possible to the community because the community was supporting me. Practically every member of the Rotary Club was interested in civic affairs and practically every member was a member of a certain civic group and that’s why [the Club] kept up with all the things that were going on.
After joining in 1937, Bill Erwin, who worked in automobile and cotton financing, had much the same feeling:
Here’s what I was told when I joined: “What you have joined is a group of business and professional men in the community who accept the moral principle of service to humanity as an essential part to their individual happiness. I was also told that the Rotary club would not tolerate ticket selling, any controversy about politics or religion, and it should never come up in a meeting to where there could be any controversy at all. It was also told to me when I joined that in order to have “service above self” that when a person in Rotary ask you or put you on a committee or ask you to help in doing anything that you never refused. You may be out of town, but you had the same privilege of asking some friend of yours to help and do the same thing. That was the main reason Rotary got things done.