Interview with Rotary President David Walters

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Rotary Reflections by Emily Stratton

I had the opportunity to interview President David Walters this past week and had a most interesting conversation, hearing the inside of his year as president and his thoughts on his unusual Rotary presidential term. Enjoy!

 Remind us how your year started—from your inauguration to first meetings.

We initially planned a wonderful evening for my Inaugural at the Oklahoma Contemporary, which I am pleased will be used by President Jerrod for his upcoming Inaugural. The pandemic changed my plans. Instead, we found a good videographer, who shot the event at President Ann’s home and then at my home.   We needed a scene with President Ann passing the gavel to me, and my returning “pink” roses to her. The videographer was able to do that but with each of us filmed at different houses. Rotarians could see Ann handing the gavel, and then the scene shifted to my house and showed my reaching out and taking it and returning the flowers.  We each provided brief statements. Rhonda and I then hopped in the car and stopped at three watch parties that were held, standing outside visiting with Rotarians.  As they say —”Necessity is the Mother of Innovation.”

     When my presidential year started, the social distancing mandate had somewhat lightened. After President Ann had led a number of club meetings late in her term Zooming from her home, she was interested in having full attendance—as much as possible—for her final meetings. The first pandemic wave had lightened up a bit, and St. Luke’s said that they could accommodate 130 in attendance, with social distancing of three per table for her last two or three meetings.

          My first meeting on July 1 was a full meeting. Many were wearing masks, though some felt it wasn’t necessary. The former Club Presidents traditional handshake was an awkward mix of elbows, fists and a few handshakes. Almost immediately after this, the second COVID wave hit. It was clear that COVID was on its way back. We were watching state, city and county data in deciding what to do! We immediately got three Rotarians with deep public health experience to be our advisors and, with the Board, crafted some case “gateways” to help us adjust our meeting attendance to the ferocity of the disease in our community.  We started live streaming from St. Luke’s, with a small crew of Rotarians, so the program would look like a real meeting. When cases in the city/county area exceeded 250 a day, we eliminated all attendees and operated with just six to eight Rotarians to put on each of the 13 meetings. Rotarians watching via their computers or cell phones could see the back of the heads of  these few people doing the invocation, pledge, national anthem, along with the staff. We called our small band the “clappers!”, who we encouraged to clap loudly so it could be picked up on audio to add a little more authenticity to the meeting. The Live Stream chat room was full of Rotarians chatting and commenting on the meetings! We were glad so many joined and were active during those dark days! People have asked how my year was, and I often date myself by referring to the video clip of “Lucille Ball in the Chocolate Factory,” a wonderful piece of footage of Lucille Ball on a chocolate wrapping assembly line and not able to keep up without a lot of comedic innovation!  Look it up! It will make you laugh!

     During all this time, we were trying to think of fun things to do. We had a good 50 to 60 Rotarians participate in our Christmas Lights Tour in Quail Springs and a wonderful Holiday Program. Our Zoom Rotary After Hours came up with the clever idea of touring restaurants behind the scenes. A Zoom tour of the First National Center reconstruction was also popular, as was a tour of the new boutique hotel, The Bradford House. Meanwhile, board meetings, committee meetings, fundraising and member recruitment proceeded with the help of Zoom!

     After the New Year and the advent of vaccine, things started improving. We began bringing back live audiences, from 25, to 50, to 75, then 130. And we finally fully opened on May 25 with Gene Rainbolt’s thoughtful program—rolling into the record attendance of 208 for the Guberathon with four former governors on June 15th.

Did our club have a significant drop in membership during COVID?

     Yes, we lost more than 65 members. Half of our member dues are supported by companies or organizations, so as the economy came to a standstill, many of these organizations tightened their belts. There is a normal churn of 40 plus members lost and 40 plus members gained.  Some said, “We can’t invite new members when we’re not meeting.” I encouraged aggressive recruiting because, while the fellowship and networking of the Club is essential to membership, there are many other reasons to be a part of the largest and oldest civic organization in Oklahoma’s history.  I am pleased that our membership team, and some incentives provided to members to recruit, have us approaching 50 new members, with a full “pipeline” of member applicants being handed over to President Jerrod’s team.  Being a large club is so important to our ability to have an impact in our community and internationally.  We needed them for projects, such as bell ringing, and fundraising, like our One Pledge campaign. With an extra push from personal letters and phone calls, that committee hit an all-time high of raising over $107,000!

You put a special carrot before Rotarians to encourage their increased recruitment of members. What did you come up with?

          A weekend at Camp David—Rhonda’s and my house at Lake Eufaula. Whoever brings in the most new members during my year gets to enjoy a really fun weekend at our retreat on the lake. The Membership Committee also offered some restaurant gift cards to remind people how important recruiting highly qualified members is to our Club.

What is our current membership number and how are we now rated in Rotary size in the world? Also, if you were encouraging someone to join Club 29, what would you tell them is the value of membership?

           Currently, we have 556 members, which still places us third in the world. To encourage membership, I would tell prospects that we are the largest and oldest civic club in Oklahoma and have wonderful philanthropy, giving away millions of dollars every year!  If you want to give back to your community and make an impact on the world in a big way, then a large Rotary Club is the ticket. And guess what? We have one!

 Looking back over your year, do you have a favorite Rotary activity?

          This year it was definitely our philanthropy—with the approval of the Board and the cooperative participation of our generous members!! Because there were savings from the meal budget due to reduced attendance, these funds were contributed to groups in our community who were particularly impacted by the pandemic. We set a record for our One Pledge Campaign with more than $107,000 raised on an original $90,000 target, which many thought would be impossible to reach due to the pandemic.  The Rotary Club of Oklahoma City has also made a significant commitment to improve and restore a 37-acre park in South Oklahoma City, which our club built 100 years ago. Our Club has committed over $30,000 to this project which, when combined with District Match funding and contributions from other Rotary Clubs, will result in over $60,000 of improvements. Our goal is to have a Rotary Festival in the refurbished Rotary Park, with all OKC Rotary Clubs participating.

           I think the officers and board were good stewards of our savings and were efficient about finding matches when available to help those in need. Finally, we started this year a program called Helping Hands, whereby Rotarians could give up to $250 to a charity of their choice and Rotary 29 would match it.  $15,000 turned into $30,000 in assistance.  Members loved this!  More than $275,000 was contributed this year by generous members—one of the highest years ever, and all in a pandemic.

Looking back over your year, do you have an especially memorable or touching Rotary moment?

           We have had an historically large number of Rotary deaths this year. Losing Mike McAuliffe to COVID was especially sad. Like so many, Mike was a loyal Rotarian and very tenacious about programs and projects. He wanted to restart the golf tournament—which we did. We held it last July and had a really fun afternoon. It is hard getting past losing Mike and the other five Rotarians who passed this year.

 How about a favorite Rotary project?

          The One Pledge project was great—The Rainbow Fleet Rotary Community Park!  This was the capstone of an extensive repurposing of the Horace Mann School into the Rainbow Fleet Early Education Center (“Center”), which sets a new “Gold” standard of excellence for early education in Oklahoma City.  The playground will provide a fun, safe and age-appropriate outdoor play area and will benefit the surrounding diverse community with a modern playground for families to enjoy, at a time when so many are looking for quality outside play areas. We committed $65,000 to this project. However, because of Rotarians generosity, we presented a check to them for $70,000.

 What was the hardest thing in adjusting to being president?

           The pandemic was a challenge because there was not a playbook for no attendance or scaled-down programs.  It took a lot of time, but the officers and board were all engaged, and the staff was terrific. We survived our second worldwide pandemic in our storied 112-year history.  Many have said they were sorry I did not get to serve in a normal year, but in reality I was honored to be able to help during such a challenging period. 

 From your earlier involvement in Rotary, what do you think prepared you the most for your year as president?

We have had great presidents in the past, and my predecessor, Ann Ackerman, was no exception.  My presidential advisors—Loftis, Cooper, Vermillion and Salyer—were all great. We have a great staff with Megan and Cheryl. 

 What about your experience at the International Convention?

Surprisingly, I didn’t get to go!! It was in Frankfurt, but I had scheduling issues and thought I would catch the next one, but there has been no in-person convention since. I hope sometime in the future to get a chance to attend a convention.  Next year is Houston; so that might be more convenient.

 Did you learn something about Rotary this year that you didn’t know?

A 112-year old club is not around without a good organization that has been well maintained. Sometimes you look behind the curtain and it is not smooth, but our Club is well organized.  I also gained a deeper understanding of the depth and competency of Rotary OKC as an international club. The work of our international team is very impressive!

 Any special advice you would give Jerrod as he starts his year as president?

I started a new tradition—“The President’s Letter”—and included a host of suggestions, both large and small. I have also encouraged continued effort for additional diversity in the club membership.

 When you look back at your Rotary year—say ten years from now—what do you think you’ll remember the most?

The pandemic and all of our rapidly implemented adjustments and precautions. We were anxious to protect the legacy of the club. We felt a sense of responsibility. Ann Ackerman and I, getting ready for all the changes coming down the pike, drafted a goal that we sent to our members: “We survived the first pandemic, and we will survive this one.”

 Any final comments on your year?

There were a lot of things we wanted to do. We wanted to double the size of the Foundation and focus on more early childhood education projects.  We wanted to work on “branding” the club so that our community knows who we are and what we do. However, time and the environment kept these things from happening. We did however make some real progress in many areas, and we hand over to the new officers a vibrant and resilient club and organization. 

 Knowing President David’s talents, dedication and smarts, we know he will continue to make a difference for our OKC Rotary Club in his upcoming role as chair of the Rotary Foundation. Our compliments again to David for his handling of a most remarkable year!!! Huzzah!!

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