Service above self
Conyers Rotary Club celebrates 40th anniversary

During the 40 years that the Conyers Rotary Club has been in existence, names and faces have come and gone, but the club's motto of "Service above Self" has never diminished.

Club President Bruce Ahlstrand, who's been a Rotarian since 1990, said that in addition to its numerous local community service projects, the Conyers club this year is teaming with a Rotary group in the Caribbean to raise $45,000 to construct public toilet facilities in Dominica, an island nation in the Caribbean Sea.

"We've got a number of things that we do," said Ahlstrand, a Minnesota native who moved to the Atlanta area in 1967 and retired from Motorola in 1998. "We work closely to help the Boys & Girls Club, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Meals on Wheels and our program for helping maintain the homes of area senior citizens, which I like to call 'Habitat for Seniors.'"

It's all part of the plan for the 60-member club, which recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of receiving its charter (which was on Feb. 28, 1968) at its weekly meeting at the Always Banquet Center on Milstead Avenue. Ahlstrand pointed out that 20 past presidents - many of whom are still active Rotarians - were present for the celebration.

"In the time I've been with the club, I've seen people come and go for a variety of reasons, but we're still doing service projects and we're still supporting the great work that so many agencies in this community do," he said.

Ed Cowan, who joined the Conyers Rotary Club 35 years ago, said one of the aspects of the club he's enjoyed the most was working with other clubs on projects.

"I've enjoyed the activities we've done with other clubs like the Rotary Club in Covington and the second (Rotary) club that was started here," said Cowan, who founded and is now retired from Cowan Ace Hardware. "One of the best things we've done is the Rotary Youth Exchange, in which we've sponsored an international student to come study here, usually at the University of Georgia."

Both Ahlstrand and Cowan said they became members of Rotary at the urging of good friends that were already club members.

"Dr. Stephen Boyle insisted I join in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but I was doing a lot of traveling for my job at the time," said Ahlstrand, who still likes to hop in his recreational vehicle and hit the road. "Knowing the importance Rotary places on attendance, I didn't want to have to spend a lot of time out of town trying to make up meetings. When I finally stopped traveling so much in 1990, I joined up."

Ahlstrand had already been quite active in community service, working closely with the Rockdale Youth Soccer Association from 1977 to 1992 to see the construction of its facility on Salem Road completed. He saw joining the Conyers Rotary Club as a natural progression.

"I knew being part of Rotary was an important networking tool, but the primary reason I joined was my friend (Boyle) was putting the hammer down on me," Ahlstrand joked. "But based on my participation with RYSA, I was obviously a volunteer-type guy. I've long been an advocate of community service."

Cowan said that he joined the Rotary Club at the behest of Charles Kennedy, who served as the superintendent of the Rockdale County School System in the early 1970s.

"In 1973, I bought the hardware store and was serving a term on the Rockdale County Board of Education," he said. "Charles Kennedy acquainted me with the group and in all honesty, I was interested in joining to be able to associate with the people who were involved in the club, some of whom I knew and others I didn't."

Cowan added that in those early years, he would improve his community acumen by picking the brains of club members who had experience and expertise in a variety of fields.

"If I had something I wanted to know about, I'd go right to the source," said Cowan. "If it was something about real estate, I'd talk to Reginald Head. If it was about county or city government, there was always somebody in the club who was an elected official. It was just a good way to learn about something from a specialist."

And Ahlstrand and Cowan admitted they became club leaders reluctantly.

"I went a long time and managed to avoid being president," Ahlstrand, who was named Rotarian of the Year in 2001-02, quipped. "But finally, several club members got me in a corner and wouldn't let me leave until I agreed to serve as president. It's slowed my travel considerably, but we've done a lot of great things."

"I was president the second year I was in the club, which was a little unexpected," added Cowan. "I'd been in the club a little over a year and they asked me to be president-elect, which meant I'd have a year to learn more about the club before I took office. But not long after the president-elect, who worked at AT&T, became president, he got transferred to Charlotte. And there I was, right in the middle of it all."

Although the club maintains between 55 and 60 members, there was a time when more than 100 local residents were involved in the Conyers Rotary Club. With interest and attendance growing, it was decided to found another organization, the Rockdale Rotary Club (also known as "the breakfast club") in 1993.

"We had reached a point where we needed to either get smaller or spin off a new club," said Ahlstrand. "There were a lot of people who worked in Atlanta or somewhere other than Conyers and they had trouble getting back to Conyers for our Tuesday lunch meetings. They were able to attend breakfast meetings and then get on with their day. So it was good to get a morning club going."

Ahlstrand and Cowan agreed the two clubs have a "friendly rivalry" and make the most of joint projects, including the annual Empty Stocking Fund program, which enables hundreds of needy children to enjoy a morning of Christmas shopping at Target.

As one of the club's longest-serving members, Cowan said his Rotary experience has been an enriching one.

"To have been a part of this Rotary Club for 35 years has meant a lot to me," he said. "It has provided me the opportunity to see old friends that I ordinarily wouldn't see on a week-to-week basis, and we've been involved in some very important and worthwhile local projects through the years. You can sum it up like this: I've made some great friendships and some great business relationships through the years, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens. If you have a story idea, contact Features Editor Karen Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.