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Editor's Weekly: What I Learned From The Overland Rotary

Rotary Club of Overland mug
Margaret Wolf Freivogel

It was still dark when the Rotary Club of Overland gathered Wednesday morning at Russo’s restaurant on Page. At a time when north St. Louis County is in the international spotlight for what’s wrong, the meeting cast a sliver of light on what’s right.

In the months since Michael Brown’s death at the hands of then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, North County has been at the center of a debate of cosmic proportions. It concerns long-simmering, wide-ranging issues of race, fairness and opportunity.

The Rotary members seem to prefer action over argument. They’re concerned about helping Ritenour schools and students. One of their projects supplies coats. Another provides dictionaries, English and Spanish.

The relationship between the club and the schools is direct and deep. At my table, one Rotarian was an assistant school superintendent, another was on staff and a third was a retired guidance counselor. Each month, the club invites two Ritenour High School students to join in the meetings. One of the seniors there Wednesday aims to be a pediatric nurse; the other wants to teach history. Both gave a positive face to a student body whose image is often portrayed in negative terms.

Nothing at the Rotary meeting Wednesday was news in the conventional sense. Among these folks, extraordinary service is business as usual. Overland Rotary has been committed to helping its community since the club was founded in 1947.

Education is one of several areas where Rotary has worked to make a difference, explained Todd Lindley, the dentist who invited me to the meeting. Internationally, the organization has helped eradicate polio, raising more than $1 billion for the effort.

Like most service organizations, Overland Rotary’s membership has fallen off in recent years. Still, more than a dozen men and women showed up Wednesday – and can be counted on to show up every week at 7 a.m.  The club used to meet at noon, but now members make the commitment the first priority of the day.

We talked a bit about news in the conventional sense, including Ferguson and its aftermath. We talked not at all about efforts in the news that might lead to consolidation of St. Louis County municipalities such as those around Overland. Yet I learned a lot that is relevant to both ongoing debates.

For one thing, it’s obvious that the loyalty and love the Rotarians feel for their community is the gold standard of civic engagement. Those searching for solutions to the region’s problems might begin by appreciating this asset. They might recognize the importance of building on community loyalty and the hazards of steps that would weaken it.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems exacerbated by St. Louis County’s welter of jurisdictions. As the Rotarians have demonstrated, people need to reach across boundaries to solve problems, whether the lines are drawn locally or internationally.

Several people at the meeting, including the two high school students, said they are put off by news coverage because it’s so relentlessly negative. Research shows that people don’t always want what they wish for when they ask for more “good” news. Still, a steady news diet of problems with little attention to problem solvers is bound to leave a community feeling malnourished. Breakfast with the Rotary Club of Overland was nourishing indeed.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.