There’s a lit fireplace in the corner, but its crackle cannot be heard over the buoyant patter of friendly conversation. At the door, a man wearing a nametag — Steve Cervantes — helps others affix nametags of their own. As a guest, I need a stick-on tag, and Steve’s left hand in injured; only a few fingers are free from his casted wrist. When Steve struggles to peel the stick-on nametag from its backing, another man, Richard Lozano, steps up.
“Here, Steve, let me help you with that," he says.
Richard assists Steve, and together they welcome me to the luncheon meeting of the Flagstaff Rotary Club.
Club President Tonya Watson invited me to join the meeting to get a feel for Flagstaff’s Rotary chapter. It’s a big year for the local club — their centennial. On Dec. 1, the Flagstaff Rotary Club will celebrate their charter’s 100th year.
The motto of Rotary Club is “Service Above Self,” and these words are emblazoned on signs and banners that decorate the room. Watson chimes a bell to bring the meeting to order, and after members say the Pledge of Allegiance, she invites a moment for quiet reflection.
People are also reading…
“Let’s keep in mind all our community members in need,” she says, and the room takes a few silent breaths together.
A handful of announcements and a primer on thankfulness preamble up to the featured speaker: Northern Arizona University President José Luis Cruz Rivera. The university president shares his journey to NAU and a brief description of his goals and then invites questions. There are many.
Club members are curious about everything from student safety to community college collaborations. They ask about parking, living costs, housing and how NAU intends to support trade education. This last one gets several nods of approval. There are carpenters, electricians, tradespeople of all sorts in the audience.
In short, the club quizzes Cruz Rivera, and the reason is obvious: They care. They care about the community they call home, and they’ve demonstrated this care over 100 years of service.
The Flagstaff Rotary Club completes more service projects in one year than most individuals will in a lifetime. Every year they award scholarships to graduates from local high schools, but that’s just the beginning. This year, the club organized a golf tournament to benefit Northland Hospice & Palliative Care.
“We’re the only nonprofit hospice in Northern Arizona,” explained Northland CEO Kathy Simmons. “Rotary Club helped us make $5,000 of income. I was so impressed. Not just by what they did with us, but with the other services they’ve done in town.”
When Jason Kordosky, volunteer coordinator at the Flagstaff Family Food Center, needed help to remodel a kitchen, Rotary Club showed up.
“They are ideal community partners,” he said. “They’re always on hand.”
Among the volunteers who came out to support Kordosky was Walter “Hoppy” Hopkins, who has been a local Rotarian since 1999. In that time, Hopkins has served hot meals, distributed dictionaries to schoolchildren, and lent his hands to the construction of the Frances Short Pond amphitheater. He’s gotten his hands plenty dirty, even while helping others get theirs clean. Recently, Hoppy and other Rotarians built hand washing stations out on the Navajo Nation to support good hygiene during the pandemic.
To Hopkins, the power of the club lies in its leadership and network.
“I think there's a lot of people who are willing to do things, but they really don't know how to go about doing it,” he said. “You got to have somebody who has enough interest to lead things to get them done, and it’s easier if you have got somebody who has a little bit of a viewpoint or a contact that can help get things started.”
For the moment, the Flagstaff Rotary Club has entrusted leadership to President Watson. Indomitably good-natured, Watson came to Flagstaff by way of Georgia, where she first became attracted to Rotary Club many years ago as a young business owner.
“All the movers and shakers were in Rotary,” she said of her Georgia chapter. “And I wanted in.”
Unfortunately for Watson, she found her Georgia chapter to be less than inclusive. As a woman, they did not allow her to become involved at the level she desired. That changed when she moved to Arizona.
“I found the Flagstaff club was much more open, much more inviting,” she said.
Through dedicated service, Watson rose to the rank of president of the Flagstaff club, then to district governor, a role in which she oversaw more than 40 clubs in the region. After a while, she found the position to be a little too lofty.
“I wanted to spend more time with my local club,” she explained. With open arms, the Flagstaff Rotary Club welcomed Watson’s return to the role of president.
Over her Rotary journey, Watson admits that at first she was really just interested in establishing networks to support her business. Somewhere along the way, her motivation changed.
“It was our motto — Service Above Self — that made the change for me,” she said. “I really started to see what was possible, what we could do in our community.”
To date, Watson’s most cherished memory of service is the Buffalo Park project through which Rotary partnered with the city to restore and improve the 275-acre municipal park.
“We were out there every weekend for a year,” Watson said. “That year we volunteered over 1,000 hours at the park alone. When we were finished, I just thought about how nice it all looked, how many people would enjoy the improvements. I felt good about the legacy we were leaving.”
In terms of legacy, Watson has some other ambitions as well. She would like to see the Flagstaff Rotary Club attract more diverse membership.
“If our goal is service to the community, then our membership has to be more reflective of that community,” she said.
In her mind community doesn’t stop at Flagstaff city limits. Watson is pleased to report that the club has recently secured a grant to dig 90 wells on the Navajo Nation in partnership with DIGDEEP, an organization specifically focused on bringing running water to American homes in need.
The thing about Rotary Club is that alongside all this community service grows a smaller, more tender type of community: friendship. At the end of the day, that’s what keeps Steve Cervantes coming back.
“I was in a fraternity in college,” Cervantes said. “And I liked that bond. I feel the same way about this club. Do you have a group of people that know what you're going through, that you've been through the fire with? To me this is just a further extension of that.”
During my sit-in at the Flagstaff Rotary Club, Cervantes sat across from me. He made sure that I knew to help myself to the hummus and pita on the table. Just before the ending bell chimed, the group recited their “Four Way Test.”
“Of the things we think, say or do,” the group said in unison. “First, is it the truth? Second, is it fair to all concerned? Third, will it build goodwill and friendships? Fourth, will it be beneficial to all concerned?”
Then, the meeting adjourned, and the delightful patter resumed.
Service may indeed be its own reward, but for this 100-year-old club it’s a premise, a reason to gather, a reason to trust your neighbor, a reason to give your strength to something beyond self.
The Flagstaff Rotary Club will be hosting its 100th Anniversary Celebration on Wednesday at the Flagstaff Ranch Clubhouse. For more information, contact Tonya Watson at RotaryTonya@gmail.com, (928) 853-1406.