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Austin powers

Rotary Club of Austin, Texas

In the 1950s, when Jack Mayo was a young man, his future father-in-law took him to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Austin. “It was part of sizing me up as a potential son-in-law,” he recalls. “I was very intimidated by these successful people. I really didn’t think I ever would be a Rotarian myself.” After 20 years in the U.S. Navy, Mayo settled with his wife in California, where he became a Rotarian and served as a district governor. When the couple returned to Texas, he knew he wanted to join the Rotary Club of Austin.

Previous page: Austin Rotarians Tillery Castillo (from left), Julia Benkoski, Jack Mayo, and Todd Coleman at the Texas Capitol.

Photo by John Davidson

One of the first Rotary clubs in Texas, it was chartered in 1913. Mayo, the official historian of District 5870, says that over the years, the club has thrived in a city that is a center of business and politics as well as a bastion of charming eccentricity. 

Austin is home to the Texas Legislature and a large University of Texas campus. The city is also a thriving technology hub: Google and Apple have big offices, and the job search engine Indeed as well as numerous gaming and biotech companies are headquartered there. 

But Austin has a reputation as an incubator for the quirky and a center for the arts. “Keep Austin weird” is a popular unofficial motto. Whole Foods Market started there with a focus on natural foods. The TV show Austin City Limits brings an array of musicians to the city, and the South by Southwest festivals celebrate music, interactive media, and film. Austin is the home of filmmakers Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. 

According to Club President Julia Benkoski, that particular mix of people and interests is part of the reason for the club’s success. “We have former mayors, people from University of Texas, young professionals, retired people — all of whom have a heart for service,” Benkoski says. With more than 200 members, the club works hard to keep everyone engaged and active.

At a meeting in October, members are brought up to date on preparations for Pints for Polio, to be held later that month on the rooftop patio of the trendy new Fairmont Hotel. The annual event started as a fundraiser aimed at current members, but now functions as a soft recruiting opportunity for the club. 

Tillery Castillo, vice president for membership service, has brought marketing savvy to the event. “We did some market research and found that many younger adults didn’t know enough about polio to feel the importance” of Rotary’s work to eradicate the disease, explains Castillo. “So informally, when we publicize the event to non-Rotarians, we refer to the happy hour as ‘pints for a cause.’ We educate them once we get them in the door.” Once someone’s interest is piqued, club members can invite that person to a more formal membership recruiting event held in the winter.

One of the club’s signature service projects is also one of its oldest. In 1921, members acted as Santa Claus to the orphaned and abandoned children under the care of the city’s Helping Hand Home, giving them toys, candy, and a Christmas tree. In 1925, the club gave the organization a new building and the land on which it sits. Helping Hand Home (HHH) has been at that location ever since. 

Every year, a club member dresses up as Santa Claus and distributes gifts purchased with club donations. “We used to bring them toy catalogs and let them pick out some things they wanted,” says Todd Coleman, part of the leadership team for the HHH project. “We’ve moved into the 21st century, with the kids looking at shopping sites online.” Coleman, the managing partner of a janitorial services company, also helps run an annual back-to-school Splash Bash with water slides and games for the kids at HHH.

To educate high school juniors in the workings of entrepreneurship, the club runs the annual Camp Enterprise. Around 100 high school juniors are divided into teams and must come up with a product to pitch. “They learn the ins and outs of legal issues, technological issues, finance issues,” explains Benkoski. “They devise a business plan. They hear from real entrepreneurs who have been successful, who come and talk about how to do it.”

Club members also volunteer as mentors in local schools, run a scholarship program, and organize a variety of literacy programs for kids. And with Fort Hood about 70 miles from Austin, the club has a program, Operation Vacation, that gives families from the base a weekend in Austin. Over the past 10 years, the club has provided these respites to one military family a month.

Club leadership consciously cultivates future leaders. At the October meeting, Mayo talks about the strategy. “When you see someone you know could be a successful club president, you want to be sure they volunteer at the right time,” he says. “I encourage people to do the work on the committees like Helping Hand Home and Camp Enterprise. And then when the time is right, I say, ‘This is the year you ought to throw your hat in the ring.’ There’s kind of a subtle competition to get the club presidency and do the very best you can during your year as president, and it really works. I wish every Rotary club could be as successful as this one.”

— Hank Sartin

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