Zelienople Rotary: Celebrating a Century of Service Above Self
Santa held the microphone to his hairy lips and began counting down. “10, 9, 8 …”
A knot of people nearby joined the chant. “7, 6, 5, 4 …”
Now most of the crowd bellowed along. “3, 2, 1!”
A Christmas tree lurking in the shadows suddenly ignited in a blaze of white light — 16 feet of glorious holiday spirit illuminating the center of Zelienople. The crowd on Main Street cheered, and the celebration was on.
The tree was a gift from the Rotary Club of Zelienople to the community in November. It’s the latest of many gifts to the community from the Zelienople Rotary Club, which celebrates 100 years in 2024.
During its first century, the club fed the hungry during the Great Depression, helped carve out the Community Park, and took over the town’s Fourth of July parade. It donated thousands of dollars in college and vocational scholarships to Seneca Valley students, contributed tens of thousands to charitable groups in the community, and provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rotary International’s campaign to eradicate polio from the face of the Earth.
Generations of Zelienople Rotarians donated their time, talents and energy to improving their community, nation and the world. Their efforts helped the Zelienople community become the desirable place to live that it is today.
Here’s a brief sketch of the history of the Zelienople Rotary Club and just some of the ways members have lived the Rotary motto of “Service Above Self.” Some of the history is based on previously published histories and articles, since many of the early records and photos were destroyed in a fire.
Rotary was born in Chicago in 1905, when an attorney named Paul Harris formed the Rotary Club of Chicago. It was meant to be a place where professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships. It wasn’t long before Rotary added humanitarian service, and by 1921 there were clubs on six continents.
The Rotary Club of Zelienople was organized Feb. 19, 1924, set in motion by a letter from Butler attorney James Marshall to Charles S. Passavant III on Feb. 8, 1924. The letter suggested that Passavant form a Rotary club in Zelienople, with the Butler club as its sponsor.
Zelienople Rotary was admitted on March 12, 1924. Charles W. White, superintendent of the Orphans Home and Farm School — now Glade Run Lutheran Services, where the club meets today — was elected Zelienople Rotary’s first president.
The founders chose 25 community leaders to charter the club, including Joseph “J.J.” Kennedy, owner of J.J. Kennedy & Sons cement company. J.J.’s son, Walter, became a Rotarian. His son, David “Skip” Kennedy, followed. With 57 years of service under his belt, Skip Kennedy is the longest-serving current member and the third generation of Kennedys to serve the club.
“I enjoyed Rotary, even before (I joined) with my father and my grandfather,” Kennedy recalls. “My grandfather was a member of the group of Rotary that started back in 1924, and then when he passed away, my father joined Rotary. And while he was in Rotary, I helped with many projects.”
Rotary clubs meet once a week, and for most of the period between 1924 and 2011, the Zelienople club met at the Kaufman House, which in 1924 was known as “Ye Welcome Inn” and eventually became the Hotel Kaufman. Kennedy recalls attending family night meetings with his dad in the 1940s when he was 6 or 7 years old.
“We were always singing songs, we always had music,” Kennedy said.
During its early years the Zelienople Rotary raised money for the local Boy Scout troop, honored four Civil War veterans around Memorial Day every year until they had all died, and operated a relief store during the Great Depression. A record from September 1931 read, “On account of stringent times, it was moved to dispense with all dues for one year.”
The tradition of supplying food to those in need continues to this day. In the 1990s, a group of retired Rotarians met twice a week at Sysco distributor in Jackson Township to load food with damaged packaging into pickup trucks. The men distributed the food to a variety of organizations, including Meals on Wheels, VOICe women’s shelter, City Rescue Mission, the Southwest Butler Food Cupboard and the Salvation Army.
“I really enjoyed going over to Sysco and picking up the food there,” Kennedy said. Fellow Rotarians jokingly referred to the band of Rotarians as “The Sysco Kids.”
In 1938, the Zelienople Rotary sponsored the creation of the Evans City Rotary Club. Zelienople Rotarians sponsored a second club in June 1971, when it helped start the Cranberry Township Rotary Club. Today there are two clubs in Cranberry, the original Rotary — which meets at noon — and a morning club.
Perhaps one of the biggest contributions the Zelienople Rotary made to the community began in early 1949. According to a published report, several Rotarians drove to the Butler County Boy Scout Camp for a business meeting. On the way home, the idea of creating a community park was born.
“This little band of men discussed the possibility of building a park and within a short time had raised enough money through loans to acquire ownership of 25 or more acres for the park,” the article reads. “The next step was raising money to repay these loans, and again the Rotary club came to the fore when the campaign committee was organized within the club. This group, with the help of all members and scores of other townspeople, contributed more than $14,000 to acquire title to the land.”
Zelienople Rotarian Carroll Mussig Cooper’s father, Julian Mussig, was a longtime member. Cooper has fond childhood memories of helping her father during summer work nights at the park.
“Every Friday night my dad would ride the tractor down and take the trees out,” Cooper said.
In the 1950s, Kennedy helped his dad haul away the trees and brush that Rotarians cleared, driving his father’s dump truck to Hereford Manor to dispose of the loads. In 1955, Zelienople Rotarians built the park’s largest picnic shelter. They’ve since added several picnic shelters, playground equipment and a gazebo in 1993. Club members continue to help maintain and improve the park.
Not long after Archie Simpson joined the Zelienople Rotary in 1980, the club took over a travelogue series at the Seneca Valley Intermediate High School. The travel films were shown on Friday nights each fall, with the filmmakers narrating their documentaries. The travelogue was popular with the community’s senior citizens, who enjoyed socializing during intermission with baked goods and coffee the club sold.
“We had trouble getting the people back into the theater,” Simpson said, laughing. The project, which he led, remains Simpson’s favorite during his 41 years of service.
Simpson recalls the Friday night meetings at the Kaufman House in the early 1980s. They began with Rotarians singing songs, accompanied by Joanne Meneice on a portable organ. Simpson served on the song committee, and it was customary to pick a Rotarian to sing to. The serenaded Rotarian had to pay a fine. After dinner, guest speakers would share a program on a variety of topics.
“There were a lot of jokes going on. Of course after you’d had a few drinks everybody had loosened up and were more relaxed. So they were great meetings. It was really, really good,” Simpson said.
Over time weekly meetings shifted to Friday lunch gatherings to accommodate busy family schedules. Eventually the club moved to breakfast meetings.
“The morning thing seemed to work really well for us,” Simpson said. “Everybody was OK to get up early, get to the meeting, get out of there at 8 o’clock and get to work. And that’s worked now for quite a few years. It’s been very successful.”
The Zelienople Rotary has been involved with the youth of the community for most of its history. In the early years, the club picked two outstanding students from local schools to join them at meetings for a month. The practice morphed into the Student of the Month program. The club also donated dictionaries to third graders at local schools, and has provided college and vocational scholarships to Seneca Valley seniors for decades.
In the 1990s, the Zelienople Rotary began helping a school in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, with several visits from teams of Rotarians. The club built modern latrines for the school, and over the years has bought uniforms, shoes and school supplies.
The club also sponsored students to attend the World Affairs Council in Pittsburgh each year, and sponsors high school juniors to attend the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards camp each June and a vocational student to attend the Rotary Outstanding Youth Award leadership camp.
Zelienople Rotary has participated in Rotary International’s youth exchange program for decades. Rotary families have hosted students in their homes from France, Brazil, Japan, India, South Africa and others. Kennedy’s family hosted an exchange student from South Africa in 1988, and they still keep in touch.
This year the Zelienople Rotary is hosting Eduardo, an exchange student from Ecuador. The club has also sponsored Seneca Valley students to study overseas for the school year.
Today the Zelienople Rotary is probably best known for the annual Fourth of July parade. No one is quite sure when, but the Zelienople club was asked to take over the parade more than 30 years ago. It has been organizing and executing the procession ever since.
Other service projects over the century include building a permanent home for the Southwest Butler Food Cupboard at Zion Lutheran Church in Middle Lancaster, building a community bulletin board at the corner of Grandview Avenue and Main Street in the 1990s and purchasing a public address system for downtown. It bought wreaths to hang on streetlights along Main Street, and purchased the 16-foot community Christmas tree in 2023.
Besides member donations, Zelienople Rotarians fund their projects through a variety of annual fundraisers, including pancake breakfasts, a yard sale and the Shamrock Shuffle races in Harmony each March.
“Our club has been a very giving club,” Simpson said. “It’s not like it was back when I started where we’re just going to have a couple things and that was it. It was more of a social event. Now it’s more, ‘What are we doing? How are we helping people? What family needs help? Those kinds of things are going on. So I’m pretty proud of our club.”
So is David “Skip” Kennedy.
“I never dreamed I’d be at the age I am right now. It’s a privilege to be in the Rotary this long and looking at the (100th) anniversary,” he said.” Thinking back to when my grandfather was in there at the beginning, working with dad, and the work I’m doing right now. I really feel a part of the Rotary club.”
Cooper, who became the club’s first female president in 2000, said, “I couldn’t imagine Zelienople not having a Rotary club.”
Neither can we.
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