The atmosphere was friendly at Thursday's meeting of the Rotary Club of Bakersfield Downtown, and after the formalities — a solemn invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance — inside jokes came one after the other.

New President Garro Ellis led the quips, asking at one point why he hadn't been given the honor of ringing the club's large bell to start the meeting. Then, as if to set things straight, he gave it a good gong.

The light tone carried into song as club members, belting out "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," seemed to raise their voices to replace "home team" with "Dodgers." It's just the kind of fun you'd expect at a club meeting.

But as it enters its 100th year, Bakersfield's largest and oldest Rotary club is about more than fun. It's a fundraising machine dedicated to solving problems across town and around the world.

The club regularly writes checks to local charities, including the $31,000 it gave Thursday to buy the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History and Science a new upstairs air-conditioning system. That was followed minutes later by a $5,000 gift to finish a cabin for the RM Pyles Boys Camp. Last year it donated $75,000 to the Lee & Krystyna Jamieson Recovery Home for Women & Children.

The giving is in line with Rotary International's motto, "Service above self." Downtown Club, along with five Rotary clubs in Bakersfield, contribute financially and through volunteering to major philanthropic initiatives, such as eradicating polio, providing clean water and supporting education.

"Service continues to be at the heart of Rotary, just as it was when it was formed back in 1905 by Paul Harris and three of his friends in Chicago," said Cheryl Scott, incoming president of sister organization Bakersfield Breakfast Rotary, who was on hand Thursday to welcome Ellis.

Prestige is a point of pride, too. The downtown club comprises some of Bakersfield's top leaders, counting many of the city's most successful business people and politicians as members. No one may join without an invitation.

Naturally, there's a benefit to rubbing elbows with such distinguished colleagues. It's no secret that being part of a Rotary club can lead to lucrative business connections. But members see that as side benefit, not a primary goal.

Fifty-one-year Rotary member Ken Secor, former vice president of Cal State Bakersfield, acknowledged he joined Downtown Club in the late 1960s as a way of getting plugged in. "We needed to be part of the community in a hurry," he recalled during a chat after Thursday's meeting let out.

He ticked off a long list of charitable projects he has become involved with as a member. Beneficiaries have included local organizations like the California Living Museum and Stars Theatre Restaurant, as well as a two-year project to help establish sanitation conditions in Nicaragua.

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