Rotary Club of Little Rock

The Rotary Club of Little Rock is the oldest civic club in Arkansas. It is the ninety-ninth oldest and sixth largest of more than 35,000 Rotary Clubs in more than 200 countries and geographic regions. Although the official name of the club is the Rotary Club of Little Rock, it is frequently referred to as “Club 99,” because of the number on its charter, or as the “Downtown Little Rock Rotary Club” to distinguish it from other Rotary Clubs in the city.

The club traces its origin to the 1911 arrival in Little Rock (Pulaski County) of Sidney M. Brooks (1886–1985), a Memphis, Tennessee, native who had graduated from Harvard University and moved to Little Rock to establish the state’s first advertising agency. Knowing that Brooks needed to meet more people to establish business relationships, a banker suggested to him that he should look into something called the Rotary Club, which the banker’s nephew had joined in Los Angeles, California.

The first Rotary Club was founded in 1905 by Paul P. Harris (1868–1947), a young lawyer who moved to Chicago, Illinois, to begin his law practice. It was so named because its meetings were to rotate among the business establishments of the club’s members.

Brooks invited four friends to meet with him to discuss forming such a club. The club had thirty-six members when it received its charter on January 1, 1914. Brooks was elected the first president of the club. Only two months later, he criticized the secretary for not keeping adequate records and said the office of secretary was the most important in the club. The secretary said he was not the man for the job and resigned. One by one, the members declined election. Finally, a member pointed out that Brooks had said it was the most important office in the club and suggested that Brooks resign as president and become secretary. Brooks accepted the challenge and served as secretary, keeping meticulous records, until 1951.

One of the first projects of the Rotary Club of Little Rock was a Christmas gift of shoes, socks, fruit, and candy to 108 needy children. The club’s projects since that time have become more ambitious.

In 1948, at the suggestion of its past president Gus Ottenheimer (1897–1985), the club invited two university students from France to spend a portion of the summer in Little Rock. The International Youth Project has continued since with students invited from countries around the world. It has since been named the Ottenheimer International Youth Program in honor of its originator.

Education has been of major interest to the club. In recent years, the club has donated books and dictionaries to kindergarten and primary school students in the Little Rock school district, and Rotarians go to the schools to read to children. Scholarships are given annually to deserving students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock), Philander Smith University, and University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College.

As homelessness grew during the 1980s and 1990s, the club provided backpacks and school supplies to the children of the homeless and adopted other programs to help with the problem, including, among other things, the donation of socks for homeless persons and suits for those who had been through the Our House homeless shelter and needed suitable attire for job interviews.

The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International funds ambassadorial scholarships for university students to study in foreign countries and has been a major force in a campaign to eradicate polio and childhood diseases by inoculating children around the world. The Rotary Club of Little Rock has contributed generously to the foundation, partly through the award of Paul Harris Fellowships to more than 500 members and others; one may either contribute $1,000 to the foundation and be named a Paul Harris Fellow, or one may choose to honor a person by contributing the sum and asking that said person be designated the fellow.

In 2005, the club undertook the construction of a Miracle League baseball field in Little Rock for children with special needs. It was the first such field in Arkansas.

The club has worked to provide cattle and chickens to farmers in the vicinity of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In a joint effort of the Rotary Club of Little Rock, Rotary International District 6150, the Rotary Foundation, the Rotary Club of Cluj-Napoca, and Heifer Project International, the Farmers Feed the Children project was instituted so that farmers in that area could provide milk and eggs to orphanages and children’s hospitals.

In 2006, the club had over 500 members, but by 2021, it had about 350. Once an organization for white males, the club admitted its first African-American member in 1969, and after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Rotary International could not require clubs to accept only male members, the first female members were admitted to the club in 1987.

For additional information:
Forward, David C. A Century of Service: The Story of Rotary International. Evanston, IL: Rotary International, 2003.

McDonald, Erwin L. Sixty Years of Service: History of the Rotary Club of Little Rock. Little Rock: Rotary Club of Little Rock, 1974.

McDonald, Erwin L., and Ken Parker. Service above Self: A History of the Rotary Club of Little Rock. Little Rock: Rotary Club of Little Rock, 2005.

Rotary Club of Little Rock. (accessed April 21, 2021).

Ken Parker
Little Rock, Arkansas


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