Rotary special to a father in failing health

Ann Patchett is the author of nine books, including "Bel Canto," "State of Wonder," and most recently, "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage." She has won the PEN/Faulkner Award, England's Orange Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. She was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Photo Credit: Heidi Ross

Dave Mars owned a commercial printing company in Los Angeles. He was the one who asked my father to join the Wilshire Rotary club in 1982.

"How did you know Dave Mars?" I ask.

My father mulls over this for a while but doesn't come up with anything. My stepmother, Jerri, goes back to the filing cabinets in the office off their bedroom and miraculously returns with a handful of small Rotary pamphlets, actual facebooks, each one containing about 30 pages of black and white photographs of the men in the club, along with their names and their jobs. We look through 1982 and, sure enough, there's Dave Mars.

In 1982, my father was a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department. "I had to be in some sort of service club," he tells me. "Required." The idea was that knowing people in the community was a good way of finding out where the problems in that community were. It was also a good way to meet the people who might be helpful in solving the problems you were dealing with as a police officer in Los Angeles. My father and I have talked about the riots in L.A. We've talked about the famous homicide cases he worked on – Sharon Tate, Bobby Kennedy. I think it would be nice to talk about something he actually liked for a change. "So, that first time you went to Rotary," I say. "Did you like it?"

He gives his head a small shake. "It was like going to a fraternity house, and I wasn't a member of the fraternity."

My father was 50 the year he joined the Wilshire Rotary Club of Los Angeles. I was a sophomore in college. He did 100 pull-ups every morning, 100 push-ups, more sit-ups than there are stars in the sky. He logged hours on his NordicTrack and stationary bike. I'm 50 now, and my father is 82. He is in a wheelchair, the outcome of a neurological disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. It's like Parkinson's, but it's worse. His voice, along with everything else, has grown weak. To hear him, one needs to turn off all other distractions, sit close, listen.

"Rotary got better," he says. It wasn't long before he made friends – Russ Johnson and Mike Reed, Al Woodill and Ake Sandler. There wasn't as much time for friendship in those days. Being a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department was no small thing. My father wore two service revolvers under his suit jacket. He had a terrific wife, a nice house, two daughters in college. The unexpected benefit of the service club requirement was that once a week he got to go to the Ambassador Hotel and have a nice lunch with a group of guys he liked. He became a member of the fraternity. I start flipping through the other years of Wilshire Rotary pamphlets on the kitchen table. I find Frank Patchett. I notice that year after year it was a group of guys, only guys. I mention this.

"A woman could come to a meeting as a guest," my father remembers. "If she went up to a table and said, 'May I sit here?' half the time the answer was no. If she didn't ask first, if she just sat down, the guys would stand up and go to another table."

In Los Angeles? In the 1980s?

"Late '80s," my father says. "We didn't get our first woman member until 1989." In 1992, he became president of Wilshire Rotary. One of the club members said to him, "If you let another woman become a member, I'll turn in my resignation." My father asked for his resignation. While he was president, the club accepted two more female members.

"He was thinking of the two of you," Jerri says, referring to me and my sister. She reaches over to pat my hand, something my father can no longer do.

My father wanted my sister and me to live in a world where women were safer than they had been before, where women were promoted fairly in their jobs, and where women could sit down to lunch at a service club without having the men at the table get up and move. All in all, I think he did a remarkably good job. My sister, Heather, joined Rotary in 1992 in Mankato, Minn. She said her daughter Lauren was the first baby born to the club. When she moved to South Carolina, she joined Rotary again, and when she moved to east Tennessee, she joined the Rotary Club of Greeneville.

By 1999, my father and stepmother had retired from their jobs in Los Angeles. They moved to Fallbrook, Calif., an agricultural community two hours south of the city. The only people they knew when they moved there were Mike and Beth Reed, who had retired to Fallbrook before them. Mike and my father had been friends through Wilshire Rotary.

"I remember they invited us to their Christmas party," Jerri says. "It was our first invitation to anything in Fallbrook. We were so happy to go. We didn't know a soul there." Soon after that, Mike invited Dad to be a member of the Rotary Club of Fallbrook.

I ask my father about the difference between the two clubs. "I don't remember doing service projects in Wilshire," he says. I remind him that in Los Angeles in 1982, that club was made up of men like him, and that no one had the time to paint the houses of low-income families or pick up trash on the side of the road, things that the Fallbrook Rotary club, with a healthy contingent of retired members, has made a priority. Once a year, the members host a giant lobster supper fundraiser to make sure there's money to meet project needs in their community.

Rotary, which back in Los Angeles had met my father's professional obligations at the busiest point in his life, now meets his needs in a much more basic way. Every Thursday, Jerri drives him to the Grand Tradition in Fallbrook, a fancy event and garden center with a good restaurant. Members at every table flag him over to join them as Jerri pushes his wheelchair through the room. Dad's friend Connie Fish, who was one of the first women to join the Fallbrook club, stands in line to get him his lunch. She'll feed him his lunch too, unless someone else asks to do it.

In January of this year, my sister's husband, Bill, died unexpectedly. It was, for all of us who loved him, a nearly unbearable loss. Because traveling across the country wasn't possible for my father, he and Jerri stayed in California, their hearts broken for my sister and for themselves, being so far away from her. But that week they went to Rotary, and when they told their friends what had happened, their friends prayed. The week after that they prayed for Bill and for my sister, and the week after that they prayed again. Rotary members sent cards. They sent donations to the charity my sister had chosen. They stood by my father and Jerri.

I was with my sister in Tennessee and stood by her in the receiving line after the funeral, where again and again strangers shook my hand and offered me their condolences. "I know your sister from Rotary," they said.

I am thrilled that Rotary International is making such progress in its fight against polio, but it must be said that Rotary is also providing a service too ineffable for campaign slogans. It has been a source of friendship, and when something deeper than even friendship is called for, it has been family. The global effort and the Thursday lunch exist side by side, the shared information of businesspeople and the plate brought to the table. It seems to me that this is the most extraordinary accomplishment of all.

This story originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of The Rotarian

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