It was June 1987. I was 18, had my high school diploma in hand and was ready to study journalism. I planned to be the next Connie Chung.
That fall I was enrolling to study journalism and public relations at Lock Haven University.
Around that same time in Harrisburg, a fellow LHU alum was walking into her first Harrisburg Rotary Club meeting as a mid-20s professional.
It wasn’t an easy task for Virginia Roth. More than a few in the mostly male-filled room were none-too-happy to have her in attendance. But it was no longer their choice.
On May 4 that same year, the Supreme Court ruled that Rotary couldn’t exclude women from membership. The ruling essentially paved the way to open up the service organization to the other half of the population.
Roth and a handful of other women were among the first in the midstate to join area Rotary clubs in the district.
Of the 140 in attendance at the Harrisburg club alone, maybe two were women, Roth said.
That had to have been intimidating, and awkward.
It might have been, Roth said. But instead of focusing on the differences, she looked for inroads, the common denominators with other members. Were they a morning person? What did they have in common in service? Focus on that. She was curious, dependable. She attended every meeting.
“I showed up and I was consistent in that I showed up,” she said. “I was a good listener and the thoughtfulness was appreciated. It’s a matter of being authentic with the other person, and then you have to shut up and listen. I know there’s probably a nicer way to say that.”
Nope. You said it just fine.
I first met Roth earlier this year after sitting down for coffee one afternoon in midtown Harrisburg. We talked about our experiences at LHU – OK, so the Connie Chung thing never really panned out – and we chatted easily, finding the common ground for our first conversation. Looking back, she practiced on me the same communication skills that she preached.
I later learned of her history in Rotary and I wanted to explore that experience. Our researcher at CPBJ, Alaine Keisling, helped to put me in touch with other local women Rotarian pioneers: Stephanie Acri and Carolyn Dumaresq.
“It’s critical,” Dumaresq said. “Having young women see you in a leadership role is critical.”
Without it, women tend to be stereotyped, she said.
“If they can do it, I can do it,” Dumaresq said. “We saw you do it, we know we can do it.”
These midstate women helped pave the way for my generation and others that followed.
When was the last time gender became a discussion point for entry into a service organization? That seems silly now, but it wasn’t 30 years ago. We have people like Roth, Acri and Dumaresq to remember and thank for their insight.
Here is their story, it leads this month’s newsletter.
Web editor and reporter Nicole Chynoweth profiles Elyse Ewing, a Lititz-area software developer.
Reporter Jenni Wentz highlights the work of Katie Smarilli.