“We’re all there to do service,” says Toni Hokanson, president of the Rotary Club of New Paltz, whose 32 members are among 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide. Rotary International was founded in 1905 by a group of businessmen in Chicago for purposes of fellowship and networking, but it wasn’t long before the emphasis was placed on community service. (The name of the organization came from the group’s early practice of rotating the place they held meetings among each of the members.) These days the Rotary organization is global with members in 34,000 individual service clubs that all operate under the motto, “Service Above Self.” Membership is by invitation only.
Hokanson has been a Rotarian for six years and president of the local chapter since July 1. Her one-year term will encompass the 50th anniversary of the Rotary Club of New Paltz, which was chartered on March 19, 1965. The Rotarian year runs from July through June 30, with the next year’s president elected a year in advance to serve on the board for a year as president-elect, so by the time they take over they’re well aware of what the position entails. The current president-elect who will succeed Hokanson as president next July is Maria Rice, New Paltz’s superintendent of schools.
The Rotary Club president is nominated by a committee and then it goes to a vote within the membership. When asked why she ran for the position, Hokanson says it’s not so much that she “ran” as that “eventually we all expect that it’ll be our turn; with 32 club members, and we’re 50 years old, eventually it’s going to be your turn.” She was asked to serve as president in past years but says she didn’t feel right about doing that as an elected official. The three-term former town supervisor was in office from 2006 through 2011. “There are no politics in Rotary and it’s not typical that politicians are asked to join,” she says. “I was a speaker at meetings a few times, and then they asked me to join and I agreed. But I didn’t want to be president while being a public figure and give the wrong idea about that.”
The theme of Rotary International this year is “Light Up Rotary.” Hokanson says she’s interpreting this on a local level in several ways; for one, as re-energizing the New Paltz chapter with increased membership. “We have about eight new people who have joined within the last three years; they’re energetic and gung ho and we’re happy to have them.” But there’s always room for more. “And for me,” she adds, “what ‘Light Up Rotary’ means is ‘shining the light’ on our local Rotary Club, spreading the word about what Rotary is and what Rotary does within the community. Also, within our club, to shine the light on individual Rotarians; I’ve asked a few of them to talk at our meetings about their job or something that’s going on in their life so we get to know each other a little better.” The New Paltz chapter meets once a week for lunch at Shea O’Brien’s in the village.
In addition to carrying on the club’s current service works, Hokanson has two personal initiatives that she’d like to accomplish during her year as president. The first is to increase the scholarships currently offered by adding an award for SUNY New Paltz students. The Rotary Club of New Paltz currently distributes $9,000 in scholarships each year to local high school students; two awards of $3,000 and six of $500.