Community Networking : Thousand Oaks: Rotary members trade information, aid charities. More women and young people are joining.


Every Wednesday at noon, patrons of the Westlake Inn restaurant find their lunchtime conversation briefly interrupted by singing coming from behind a door in the far corner of the room.

The same sounds are heard on Thursdays by diners at Howard Johnson’s and on Fridays by those sipping coffee before a round of golf at the North Ranch Country Club.

Behind those doors, a powerful group of men and women from nearly every profession and corner of Thousand Oaks pledge allegiance to the flag, sing “America the Beautiful,” share gossip, plan charity fund-raisers and remain in touch and involved, all as part of their membership in the Rotary Club.


Among the largest service clubs in the county, Rotary has gained popularity in the Thousand Oaks area, where about 280 people are members of six separate Rotary chapters.

The clubs have not only raised thousands of dollars annually for regional charities, they also have blossomed as the city’s underground information network.

Last Thursday in Thousand Oaks, a representative from the Federal Emergency Management Agency stopped by to share information on the earthquake relief effort.

“We want to help people get on their feet, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” FEMA volunteer Mike Cavannaugh told the group. “I’ve come here because I need apostles out there to squelch the rumors and get accurate information out.”

Rotarians, including two announced candidates for the county Board of Supervisors and one candidate for the Thousand Oaks City Council, listened closely for details. Business executives scribbled notes and gathered handouts.

“It’s good to know what’s going on,” said Warde Dixon, a local businessman who volunteers for the Red Cross. “We get the facts and then we can share them with the people we know.”


At another recent meeting, the architect planning a major development in Thousand Oaks presented his ideas to the members.

“When you want to float an idea or get reaction to a project, the Rotary Club is the place to go,” said Francisco Behr, the architect for the Seventh-day Adventist church development.

“I’d much rather get reaction there than wait to hear all the complaints at a public hearing when we’re well into the project.”

And, because there are developers and planning commissioners and City Council members at the meetings, Behr said the Rotary Club is an ideal place to get that reaction.

Members are selected based in part on their standing in the community, according to James Hawkins, a Thousand Oaks attorney who will become the Rotary district governor for this county in March.

“We’re looking for a diverse group of leaders from every section of the business community,” he said. “That’s been the point of Rotary right from the beginning.”


Rotary began in 1905 in Chicago by a group of businessmen who were new in the city and wanted to learn more about other peoples’ professions, Hawkins said. The club is so named because meetings rotated each week from one member’s office to another’s.

Rotary has grown to include 25,000 chapters and 1.25 million members worldwide, Hawkins said. For its largest project, the clubs raised more than $300 million to fight polio, he said.

During the past several years, Rotary members said the club has become more inclusive, recruiting women and younger people.

Rotary member Sherry Scott, a funeral director in Ventura, said that women have been welcomed and their numbers are growing steadily.

“The women in our club work damn hard,” Scott said. “I feel as comfortable here as I could possibly be.”

Young people, too, are joining the clubs in increasing numbers, Hawkins said. But to attract younger members, Rotary has had to move meeting times to earlier in the day.


“For one thing,” Hawkins said, “the dinner meetings often involved drinking, and it’s clear to me that the days of attracting top business people by blowing a lot of smoke and alcohol in their face are over.”

Instead, Rotary has created Sunrise clubs to allow commuters and people with families to meet before work.

The Westlake Sunrise club is one of the six chapters in the Thousand Oaks area. The others are the Thousand Oaks chapter, the Newbury Park chapter, the Conejo Valley chapter, the Westlake chapter and the Agoura Hills chapter.

Every Friday morning at 7 a.m., the 40 members of the Westlake Sunrise chapter, most of them in their 30s and 40s, stroll into the North Ranch Country Club.

Over a hot cup of coffee and a plate of eggs and fruit, members tell jokes, read limericks and levy fines for offenses such as having “slimy hands” or coming in late. The fines, usually about $10, go into the club’s fund for local charities.

A similar system is in place in the Thousand Oaks chapter, the largest with 108 members.

There, fines are levied for ugly ties or for not knowing who won the Most Valuable Player award in the first Super Bowl. (It was Bart Starr.) One member had to forfeit $10 “because he’s weird.”


The money from the Thousand Oaks chapter, when combined with fund-raising efforts, amounted to $45,000 in gifts to several dozen local charities, said Hugo Roche, president of the Thousand Oaks chapter. The six clubs combined raised nearly $200,000 last year, according to Hawkins.

“It’s pretty incredible what we’ve been able to accomplish even during these tough times,” Roche said. “And what’s more, I think we have a growing role to play in the community the more and more people become reliant on service dollars.”

More important than the money, Roche said, has been the involvement of members in projects and fund-raisers.

Local Rotary clubs are planning to sponsor runners in a road race to raise money for Meals on Wheels, buying flowers for Valentine’s Day to support Rotary clubs for college students and planning an auction in March to raise money for student scholarships.