Our 1.2 million-member organization started with the vision of one man—Paul P. Harris. The Chicago attorney formed one of the world’s first service organizations, the Rotary Club of Chicago, on 23 February 1905 as a place where professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships. Rotary’s name came from the group’s early practice of rotating meetings among the offices of each member.


Rotarians have not only been present for major events in history—we’ve been a part of them. From the beginning, three key traits have remained strong throughout Rotary:
We’re truly international. Only 16 years after being founded, Rotary had clubs on six continents. Today we’re working together from around the globe both digitally and in-person to solve some of our world’s most challenging problems.
We persevere in tough times. During WWII, Rotary clubs in Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Japan were forced to disband. Despite the risks, many continued to meet informally and following the war’s end, Rotary members joined together to rebuild their clubs and their countries.
Our commitment to service is ongoing. We began our fight against polio in 1979 with a project to immunize 6 million children in the Philippines. By 2012, only three countries remain polio-endemic—down from 125 in 1988.

A Brief History of Rotary in Petaluma



Paul Harris was the founder of Rotary, but Homer Wood was the extender. Three and one-half years after three men were called together by Paul Harris in Chicago in 1905, and formed the club that was given the name “Rotary”, the San Francisco Club was organized by Homer Wood. At that time Homer was a young attorney and a member of the Union League Club.

After a chance meeting with a casual acquaintance from Chicago, Homer learned about a new social club in Chicago called the “Rotary Club”. The fertile brain of Homer Wood found inspiration sufficient to start Rotary on its movement around the world. After learning more about Rotary from Paul Harris, Homer proceeded to lay the foundation for the second Rotary Club in San Francisco. Many members of the Union League Club whom Homer knew were invited to membership in the new organization. In organizing the Rotary Club of San Francisco, Homer Wood claimed that it was not meant to be anything but a booster club. On November 12, 1908 an organizational banquet was held at the St. Francis Hotel and the second Club was formed.

After founding the San Francisco Club, Homer further extended the Rotary movement by organizing Rotary Clubs in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle. In the latter part of 1922, soon after he moved to Petaluma and purchased the Courier newspaper, Homer Wood offered to organize a new Rotary Club.

Homer Wood

Twenty-four business and professional men responded to his invitation for a meeting at the American Hotel, where all present agreed a club should be organized. The Petaluma Rotary Club was chartered on March 30, 1923 with twenty-nine members. The sponsoring Rotary Club of Santa Rosa sent a number of members to attend the charter night event. Homer Wood served as the President until July 1, 1924. When his newspaper was merged with the Argus and became the Argus-Courier, Homer sold his interest and moved to Porterville where he purchased the Porterville Evening News.

His last visit to the Petaluma community was on February 23, 1967 for the honoring of all past presidents of the Petaluma Rotary Club. Homer Wood, age 86, gave a brief history of Rotary in general and Petaluma Rotary Club in particular at this historical meeting. Without the enthusiastic efforts of Homer Wood, Rotary may have remained a single club unit in Chicago.

Homer was unable to attend our Club’s fiftieth Anniversary party in 1973, so a group of Club members drove to Porterville to present Homer with our Club’s first Paul Harris Fellowship Award. Several months later, the Rotarian magazine featured a story on the event, titled “He Seconded the Motion”.


In 1929, just six years after the Club's founding, members of the Petaluma Rotary Club hammed it up for the camera. Watch their movie, now a YouTube video, and you'll see these men all over town at their places of work — and fun. (Special thanks to Michael Nistler for adding the great audio to this silent movie from long ago.)




The original meeting place of the Club was the American Hotel (now Putnam Plaza), then Foster’s Candy Shop (the old U.S. Bakery site), and next the Petaluma Women’s Club. The new Hotel Petaluma was built in the same year the Club was chartered and not long after its opening the Club moved to the Hotel’s upstairs dining room. When that room became too small, the Club’s meetings were moved to the downstairs dining room, where they remained until Club President Jim McCaffrey moved us to the Petaluma Golf and Country Club.

A few years later the Veterans’ Memorial Building became the new home, interrupted only by a temporary move to the Petaluma Golf and Country Club in 1995-1996 until necessary repairs could be made to the Vets’ Building.


When our club was organized, the charter members gave scant attention to record-keeping. Information about the subsequent events in the 1920s’ was not maintained in written form. Thus, we have no knowledge of the Club’s activities during prohibition. However, we do have the following records.

In the early years of our Club, all fines were recorded on the Club’s books under the “charity” heading. These funds were expended for charitable purposes. They often exceeded the amounts collected, with the difference being made up from the “General Fund”, a system still in place today.

The first major project of our Club was the building of the tennis court in McNear Park in 1931 which cost $1,525. The money for the project came from the General Fund with the final $200 donated by a charter member.

In 1948 the Club sent 80 CARE packages to England at a cost of $800.

Also, for several years the Club maintained a Rotary Club vocational book shelf at the Petaluma Public Library, until Petaluma High School reported that it was no longer necessary, since the State provided the High School with more updated material made available at the High School library.


1955 All-Day Breakfast

The first All-Day Breakfast was held in May, 1955 during the presidency of George Lane with Gene Benedetti serving as the first chairman. Since then, the ADB has become an annual event where a breakfast is served all day by Rotarians, Interact members, and others acting as waiters, cooks, and hosts. This event is the only Club activity that requires mandatory participation.

Profits from the first ADB purchased playground equipment for Kenilworth Park. In subsequent years equipment was also purchased for McDowell Park, Walnut Park, and La Tercera Park. The latter project was the largest project during the first fifty years when $7,500 was donated in 1971. Since the cost exceeded the ADB funds, the balance came from the Club’s surplus funds.


During the years subsequent to the 1970s, when the event was held at the old Elks Club in the Hotel Petaluma, fewer people attended the breakfast. When the ADB was moved to the Veterans’ Memorial Building this change in venue sparked a renewed interest by the public.

However, the Club noted a decline in participation and had to make a choice: do we continue with this event in which basically all revenues come from tickets bought/sold by the members? Keeping in mind that labor was donated by the members, Boy Scouts, and other volunteers, what profit resulted came from check-writing by the members.

Thus, the history of the All-Day Breakfast came to an ignominious close. The last breakfast was held in May 2009. We shall always retain fond memories of working on this fund-raiser. The end of the ADB has affected the funding for the Children’s Holiday Giving.


In recognition of the rural-urban character of the community, the Club’s first Farmers’ Night was held in 1930. Since then it has become an annual event, where Rotarians host and entertain their agricultural friends in the Petaluma area. Recently, the name was changed to “Farmers and Merchants Night”, which accurately depicts the local agricultural and non-agricultural makeup.


The Club’s first Holiday Party with spouses as guests was held at the regular luncheon meeting of December 21, 1950. The first evening Holiday Party was held on December 12, 1959 and became an annual program in 1960.

Ernie Jensen started the first Children’s Holiday Gifting program during the 1981-1982 Rotary year—an idea he borrowed from the West Santa Rosa Rotary Club. During the 1984-1985 Rotary year, the Board of Directors set aside the ADB profit for the Children’s Holiday Gifting. Since then each new Board has followed this practice of spending ADB funds on needy children.


The Club’s annual Crab Feed was started in 1972 by President Ralph Pelton. Later an auction was added to this social evening. More recently, the Club decided to hold a raffle in connection with the Crab Feed. The raffle is now a major fund-raiser which offers $10,000 in cash prizes. The Club is divided into teams who compete for awards by selling (or buying) the most tickets.


During the 1982-1983 Rotary year, President Herold Mahoney organized a benefit auction and dinner for playground equipment at Lucchesi Park. When final results were tallied, the profit exceeded the budgeted expenditures. The proposed project was the most ambitious one to date: the objective was purchase of playground equipment in conjunction with the Petaluma Valley Club at a cost of $21,000. The dinner auction was held on September 25, 1982 and raised more than our goal. The surplus funds became the “seed money” for the Rotary Club of Petaluma Foundation. Our local Foundation, a tax-exempt, charitable entity, has grown to over $250,000 in only 24 years.


A Rotary milestone during John Dado’s term in 1988-1989 took place when our Club inducted four female members. This significant change was the end result of a lawsuit against RI brought by the Rotary Club of Duarte, which defied RI by admitting three female members in violation of its constitution.



Long opposed to women in Rotary, Past District Governor Art Agnew proved to be a good sport when he dressed in drag at a 1994 meeting of the Petaluma Rotary Club. This event was captured on video by JoAnn Claeyssens. To view this 6-minute YouTube video, click here.




During the term of Kip Herzog the Club held the first Friendship Feast which has become an annual event. This social event encourages new members to interact with old members and foster fellowship at the homes of Rotarians. The proceeds from this fund-raiser are allocated for the Dictionary Project.

Meanwhile, in 1999 Harvey Freetly suggested that Rotarians use Club funds earmarked for children in the community by joining forces with the Sonoma County Literacy Coalition. The Club purchased 400 children’s dictionaries and the Literacy Coalition donated another 600 for distribution to children in the Petaluma area. Harvey later recruited Rotary clubs in the six-county Rotary District 5130 that already had small-scale dictionary projects. Soon Rotary clubs statewide were involved. Almost 10,000 dictionaries have been given away annually in District 5130 the past four years. As stated previously, all proceeds from the Friendship Feasts are the funding source for this program.


More recently, on June 20, 2002 the Club presented the City of Petaluma with a $60,000 check for the McNear Park Playground Renovation Project. This major project was undertaken with the unanimous joint agreement of three Rotary Club presidents and their boards with full member support.

In 2003, our Club spearheaded the renovation of the playground area at Walnut park, the result of another commitment by three Club presidents, Ed Fullerton, Onita Pellegrini, and Jesse Amaral who combined projects. Together they raised approximately $65,000 to update the equipment and surrounding area with safer structures made from recyclable products.


Three members have served our Club and our District as District Governor: Art Agnew* (1977-78) and Duane Blackwill (1991-92) who are both deceased, and Ed Fullerton (2008-09). Several members have served as area representatives to the DG in the past. John Strong (Petaluma Valley Rotary Club) has also served District 5130 as our Governor.


Our Club sponsored the fledgling Petaluma Valley Rotary Club which was chartered on August 16, 1974. Petaluma Valley Rotary Club later sponsored the Petaluma Sunrise Rotary Club in 2001. All three Clubs have participated in joint projects, social events, and meetings in the spirit of Rotary.


The fiftieth Anniversary program was dedicated to “those twenty-nine men inspired by their peers who caught the vision, who believed the principles, who understood the spirit, and who had the courage to begin. Could they but see us as we are now, could we but have the same zeal as they…”.


In the spring of 2006 Club members Larry Jonas and Michael Caruana put their creative minds together for a fund-raiser that would be unique and appeal to a different venue of patrons. The result was the first annual Petaluma Art and Equestrian Festival.

This unique event showcased the prowess of polo players from the local area combined with the artistic talents of the local painters, sculptors, and other forms of artistic display. The PAEF lasted five years. This event was discontinued in 2013 because the net proceeds were lower than the labor-intensive project could justify.

The Club will retain fond memories of the efforts of those members who had the vision and courage to attempt new events that held great promise.


Compiled by Paul Lounibos

      Petaluma Rotary Club 50th and 75th Anniversary Programs 
      Petaluma Argus-Courier Rotary Tabloids, 2005 and 2006 
      Rotary International Web Site 
      Rotary District 5150 Web Site 
      Petaluma Rotary Club History, Archives of Arthur Agnew



In March 2013, Petaluma's three Rotary Clubs celebrated 90 years of Rotary in Petaluma. Here is a YouTube video prepared by Petaluma Rotarian Michael Nistler for the 90th Anniversary celebration. It highlights the service, fellowship and history of all three clubs over the years.




Rotarians are your neighbors, your community leaders and some of the world’s greatest history-makers: 
  • Warren G. Harding, U.S. president
  • Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer
  • Dr. Charles H. Mayo, co-founder of Mayo Clinic
  • Guglielmo Marconi, Italian inventor of the wireless radio and Nobel laureate
  • Thomas Mann, German novelist and Nobel laureate
  • Friedrich Bergius, German chemist and Nobel laureate
  • Admiral Richard E. Byrd, American explorer
  • Jan Masaryk, foreign minister of Czechoslovakia
  • H.E. Soleiman Frangieh, president of Lebanon
  • Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator
  • Manny Pacquaio, Filipino world-champion boxer and congressman
  • Richard Lugar, U.S. senator
  • Frank Borman, American astronaut
  • Edgar A. Guest, American poet and journalist
  • Sir Harry Lauder, Scottish entertainer
  • Franz Lehar, Austrian composer
  • Lennart Nilsson, Swedish photographer
  • James Cash Penney, founder of JC Penney Co.
  • Carlos Romulo, UN General Assembly president
  • Sigmund Sternberg, English businessman and philanthropist
Ready to make history with us? Get involved.