And Kiwanis International was founded in Detroit. One year later there were three clubs and roughly 500 members. Initially, the organization was all about business networking, but that focus changed not too many years later to service, and then more specifically to serving children.
Jump ahead 47 years to Rhinelander. It’s 1962, the year the Beatles released their first record, “Love Me Do.” The NBA’s Wilt Chamberlain scored 4,000 points that season and a group of businessmen formed the Kiwanis chapter in Rhinelander.
Today, the Rhinelander Kiwanians represent a portion of the more than half a million members in 80 nations—all of whom are celebrating a century of service projects. Hal Berndt is Rhinelander’s longest serving member at 38 years.
“I worked at the DNR as a forester and at the time that I joined the club, I was supervising the American legion state forest,” Berndt recalled. “We were working on a 20-year plan and I was invited to speak at one of the meetings. I knew several of the men there, so they put the squeeze on me.”
The smile on his face says the squeeze wasn’t such a bad thing. The projects the club completed for kids interested him. At that time much of their work was done at the Boy Scout Camp.
“The longer I was there, the more projects we developed,” Berndt said. “A big difference between Kiwanis and other service organizations is that we’re very hands-on.”
Hal’s daughter Julie, also a Kiwanian, suggested her father for one of bigger projects the club has undertaken. “I made arrangements for and planned the trail behind the YMCA. Julie volunteered me because I had created trails in the state forest. We did the whole thing at little or no cost.”
Through the years the Rhinelander Kiwanis have put about $500 thousand dollars into projects, like the Stoney Pines trail, throughout the community. A blacktopped outdoor lighted basketball court at Central School, and a greenhouse constructed in the yard of the Rhinelander Area Food Pantry are two of the more recent hands on ventures.
Unlike Hal, who had his arm twisted to join the service club, as a woman, Julie Berndt didn’t have the right to join until the late 1980’s.
“I was one of the first women that they let into Kiwanis. In 1987, Rotary and Kiwanis international voted to let women in,” Julie recalled. “It wasn’t until the end of 1989 when the Rhinelander club voted to let women in. As my dad can tell you, it was quite a contentious subject.”
“We were told a lot of things would happen if we let women into the club… that they would take over,” the elder Berndt said. “But we needed members, and when women were allowed there was a surge in membership.”
Nancy Frasier, Meredyth Albright, and Julie were the first there women in the club. Frasier was one of the first three female Kiwanis presidents in the state and the Berndts held a historic distinction of their own.
“My dad and I were the first father-daughter duo who were both presidents of the same club in the state,” according to Julie. “There were lots of fathers and sons, because women weren’t allowed in.”
Current club president Martha Knudson is an 11 year member. “Because I am a school district administrator, I feel that I am sort of an ambassador to the club. I appreciate that I can serve the district and the club.” Knudson said she also enjoys bringing Rhinelander High School students to the meetings, to hopefully inspire the students to serve their community, and to hear what the Key Club, a branch of Kiwanis, is doing and offer support.
Both Berndts, and Knudson say they are proud of the work the Kiwanis club has accomplished. “Becoming involved in the community, and meeting people who have the same desire to make the community better,” according to Julie, “ is what keeps the club moving forward.”
Forward, only another 47 years and the Rhinelander club will be celebrating its centennial.