Rotary Club of Salem celebrates 100th birthday with ambitious park project

Gerry Frank, 96, acknowledges a standing ovation at the Rotary Club of Salem’s 100th birthday celebration on Feb. 5, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Gerry Frank proudly sports his button labeled #1, marking him the longest-standing current member of the Rotary Club of Salem.

Now 96, Frank joined the club in 1955 after moving to Salem from the Portland area. He saluted over 100 fellow club members celebrating the club’s centennial at their weekly lunch Wednesday.

“I am deeply grateful for the love and the friendship that you have shown me over 65 years,” he said.

As Oregon’s second-oldest Rotary group, the club’s members have contributed millions of dollars to local projects, set up a mentorship program and worked on major projects in Salem’s Riverfront Park, including the children’s playground and the pavilion.

Now, the Salem club is getting ready for another ambitious project: building a covered amphitheater on the now-empty lot at the park’s southeastern edge, next to the Taco Bridge.

Barry Nelson, past president of Rotary Club of Salem, points to the future location of the Gerry Frank Amphitheater in Riverfront Park (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Scheduled to open in the summer of 2021, it will bear Frank’s name and serve as the club’s 100th birthday gift to Salem.

“What could I say? I was blown away,” Frank said about being asked if the structure could be named after him.

The Rotary Club of Salem was the second in the state of Oregon and held its first meeting Feb. 18, 1920, in the Hotel Marion downtown. Members still meet weekly in the same spot, now the Salem Convention Center.

The club was started by about five local businessmen and boasted a membership of 22 on its official charter date. It’s since sponsored about a dozen other new Rotary clubs in the Willamette Valley, including those in Silverton, Dallas, Tigard and Monmouth-Independence.

Wednesday’s celebration of the club’s 100th birthday took the form of a typical meeting with some extra twists, including birthday cake frosted in blue and white. Many Rotary members from nearby chapters visited, as did district governor Diane Noriega, who praised the club for staying vital over its history, often leading the region in new members.

“You all make 100 years look really good,” she said.

Rotary Club of Salem President Tammy Dennee receives a certificate commemorating the club’s 100th birthday on Feb. 5, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Past club president Barry Nelson is spearheading the amphitheater and said the club has raised about $3.1 million of a $4 million goal, with a number of grant applications pending that should get the club over the line.

 The structure is designed to look like the baskets woven by the Kalapuya people, the original inhabitants of the Salem area. Nelson said residents selected it from among five possible designs.

“That historical connection as well as cultural connection really resonated,” Nelson said.

Club members hope the amphitheater will help draw more performing artists to Salem, giving event organizers a multi-purpose stage shielded from sun and rain.

Rotary Club of Salem members sing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” at the club’s 100th birthday celebration over lunch on Feb. 5, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.