History of Rotary Club of Knoxville

Founded in 1915, the Rotary Club of Knoxville (RCK) is the community’s oldest service organization and with nearly 200 members is one of the largest Rotary Clubs in the world.  Half of East Tennessee’s Rotary clubs can trace their lineage back to RCK.

The club’s earliest members included several of the visionaries responsible for the concept of our nation’s most visited national park.  In 1923, RCK member Willis Davis and his wife returned from visiting national parks in the Western United States asking, “Why not have a park in our mountains?”

This idea inspired Col. David C. Chapman, the club’s first president, and several other Knoxville Rotarians to create the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association which had a significant influence in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Throughout the last century and into the new millennium. RCK continues supporting the Park with projects such as a trail for handicapped visitors, a wildlife display at the Sugarlands Visitors Center, an information display on Mt. LeConte, improvements to Alum Cave Trail, annual updates to the Sugarlands Recognition Wall, and restoration of the Elkmont Theater.  The Recognition Wall project at Sugarlands honoring those who have contributed to the Park is updated by RCK annually .

But the Park has not been the only beneficiary of the enthusiasm and generosity of RCK’s members.

Community Service: In the early years, the club helped to organize a band at Old Knoxville High, sponsored playgrounds, boys camps and even encouraged pork production during WWI through the “Pig and Corn Club.”

Higher Education: The Rotary Foundation of Knoxville (RFK), begun in 1923, has helped over 600 students achieve their educational goals with low-interest loans. Since 1996, the club’s Foundation has awarded scholarships annually to deserving Knox County high school seniors.  Beginning in 2016, RFK scholars will receive a $ 20,000.00 4-year scholarship to the college of their choice.

Other club programs & projects have included and /or continue to include support for:  Junior Achievement, 4-H Clubs, Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, the Boys and Girls Club of Knoxville, Character Counts, John Tarleton Home For Children, Habitat for Humanity, Helen Ross-McNabb Center, the Salvation Army, Tennessee School For the Deaf, YMCA Day Care Scholarships, Rotary Youth Leadership Awards, annual Knox County Teacher Recognition Awards, book clubs and book donations to local elementary schools.

RCK also sponsors Welcome Picnics for International Students at the University of Tennessee and at Pellissippi State College each year.  The club sponsors two Interact Clubs – one at Knoxville Catholic High School and the other at Webb School of Knoxville – and two Rotaract Clubs – one at UT and another community-based club for young professionals ages 21-to 30.


Since the 1990s, RCK’s influence has reached beyond the borders of the United States.  In 1995, RCK established a “Twin Club” partnership with the Rotary Club of Mateszalka in Northeast Hungary.  Our twin clubs collaborated on the renovation of Camp Tridea, a summer retreat for underprivileged children, orphans and refugees in Northeast Hungary.  Over the ensuing years we have sponsored three bicycle trips across Hungary to raise funds for the camp and for the Mateszalka Children’s Home.  We have funded playgrounds around the city and an impressive skate park.  Each Christmas we send funds for a gift for each child at the orphanage.  The members of the Mateszalka Rotary Club and the Mateszalka Inner Wheel Club then shop for a special gift for each child, wrap each gift, and deliver to the orphanage where the gifts are placed under the tree for Christmas.

In 2006, RCK began working with the Rotary Club of Knysna, South Africa to help with needs identified there including partial funding of a mini-van to transport needy students, funds for pre-school equipment and supplies, renovation materials, computers for a vocational education program, a breakfast program for day laborers.  In addition, the club has sponsored travel grants for several groups of Interact students to travel to Knysna and assist with the Knysna Rotary’s various projects.


RCK members have been very generous in supporting the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International which provides resources for key international service programs.  Every past president of RCK has been named as a “Paul Harris Fellow” through a contribution of $1,000 to the Foundation.  Every year since 2005-06, the club has contributed well over $100 per capita to the Rotary Foundation of RI Annual Fund and every year it has been recognized as a STAR club.  In 2010, RI recognized RCK for having made total club contributions to the RI Annual find of over $1,000,000.  As of 2016, total club contributions had increased to $1,414,120.


For all Rotarians, the most far-reaching service effort is Polio Plus.  In 1985, Rotary International took the lead to immunize and protect the children of the world from the crippling and fatal effects of polio.  During the next few years, Rotarians can look forward to total eradication of this devastating disease.  So far, RCK members have given more than $110,000 to the Polio Plus Campaign.


RCK Centennial Logo


Together with five other Knoxville area clubs, RCK raised over $100,000 to underwrite a bronze sculpture created by Hungarian Rotarian and sculptor Lajos Biro commemorating Rotary’s ongoing commitment to the world’s children through the eradication of polio.  The 2005 dedication of the Centennial sculpture, located in downtown Knoxville’s Krutch Park, drew RI’s president, many past RI presidents, many RI Directors and Foundation Trustees, as well as other international dignitaries.


The club’s members are devoted to the Rotary ideals of Service, as well as Building Good Will and Peace in the World.  The club has been the home club of 10 Rotary District Governors including Past Disrict-Governor (PDG) Walter T. Pulliam, 1972-73, PDG Arthur V. Clancy, Jr., 1989-90, PDG John W. Bailey, Jr., 2004-05, and PDG Frank Rothermel, 2011-12.  The late Charles H. Miller served as District Governor in 1960-61 and went on to serve as a Director of RI 1966-68 and for two terms as a trustee of the Rotary Foundation.

RCK is proud to have been part of RI since 1915.  All members of the club look forward to continuing that tradition of service into Rotary’s second century. In addition, the Rotary Club of Knoxville celebrated it’s Centennial on September 1, 2015. The best is yet to come!