Lifelong Rotarian: Ham celebrates membership, music
Keith Ham, 93, has been a member of the Berryville Rotary Club for almost 50 years and has been the club’s pianist since 1993.
As part of Rotary International, he said the Berryville Rotary Club brings together dedicated individuals to exchange ideas, build relationships and take action in their community.
J.E. Simpson was the leading force behind organizing a Berryville chapter, Ham said, and the Berryville Rotary Club held its first meeting at the Grandview Hotel on Dec. 21, 1937. The club received its charter on Feb. 1, 1938, he said, when 166 Rotarians from organizations in Northwest Arkansas and Missouri attended the Charter presentation held in the school cafeteria.
Ham said he joined the club in 1970. While he served as president from 1982 to 1983, he said he never expected to serve as the pianist.
“In January 1993, our pianist Jack Doss, who had been in the club as long as I have, had a heart attack and died,” he said. “The club always had a format of meeting where we would sing a couple songs at the beginning before getting to business.”
Ham continued, “After Jack died, we tried to sing a capella, and it didn’t work. My oldest daughter Konnie Sager is a piano teacher, so I went to her.”
He said he had his daughter put all of the Rotary tunes that the club members normally sung on tape.
“The plan was for us to sing along with the tape,” he said. “We tried a couple of times and gave that up. We searched around in the club to see if anyone could play the piano.”
Ham said he played B-flat tenor saxophone in his high school marching band, and his mom had him learn piano as a kid.
“I said I would try and basically had to go to school again in 1993,” he said. “I was born in 1925, so in 1993 I was about 68 when I picked piano back up. I basically had to play the songs by ear, which is what I did before anyway.”
It was hard getting back into piano, Ham said, but his fellow Rotarians had a lot of patience.
“There was no alternative. It was better than a capella,” he said, laughing. “We sing the songs I feel comfortable with, which is about a dozen or so.”
Ham said he has enjoyed playing the piano again because he had considered pursuing music when he was in high school.
“When I came out of high school, it was in the middle of World War II,” he said. “I thought I was going into the army because we had a mandatory draft then. I gave my saxophone to my sister, who was a couple of grades down, and had to shut off on the music.”
Ham said he loved the big bands that were rising in popularity when he was a student, such as Lawrence Welk, Kay Kyser and Glen Miller.
“Some of the bands that got to be big later played in my town in Nebraska,” he said. “Glenn Miller is the guy who really changed everything. He was in the Army Air Corps and took John Philip Sousa marches and made them rock. He was the guy that really changed music.”
Ham continued, “I loved the big bands, and I always thought it would be fun to pursue that if it hadn’t been for the war being on and me having to give up music. I couldn’t at the time, but I still love the big bands.”
The Rotary Club did not just reconnect him with music, he said. It also helped him reconnect with family members in Sweden.
“Rotary opened the doors for me to find my ancestors back in Sweden,” Ham said. “I was president in 1982, and I got a handbook that showed every Rotary Club in the world. It listed the presidents and secretaries of every club.”
He continued, “I never knew much about my great-grandparents. My dad never really talked about them, but I did know the city in Sweden they departed from. So I made contact with the president of that club.”
Ham said he explained to the other club president that he was interested in finding out if he had any relatives in Sweden.
“I made a trip over there and went to their meeting. I was kind of the guest of honor that night,” he said. “I told them all I knew was that my great-grandparents had come from their city. In the morning, some of the local Rotarians took me to the old church and looked in the records.”
They weren’t able to find anything at the time, Ham said, and he returned home a little disappointed.
“Two weeks later, I get a letter from a man who lived in the next town over,” he said. “He said his friends had told him I was at Rotary looking for relatives. He said, ‘I want to tell you that you have many relatives, but the names have changed.’ So the ‘Ham’ went to ‘Osth,’ which means ‘east’ in Swedish.”
Ham said he returned a few years later and basically had a family reunion in Sweden.
“We all got acquainted,” he said. “Some of their boys came over here and spent a couple of weeks in America, and I’ve sent all my grandsons over there to spend some time with them. It was amazing how Rotary opened up tremendous doors. To this day, I correspond with my cousin in Stockholm.”
Ham said he also got to see his daughter Kristy Noble become not only the first female member of the Berryville Rotary Club but also the first female president of the club.
“Up until the 1990s, women were not allowed to be members of the Rotary Club,” he said. “There were auxiliaries for them and Rotarians’ wives were known as ‘Rotary Anns,’ but they could not really be in the club.”
When a woman tried to join the club in 1996, he said it sort of blew the club up, and several members resigned.
“My daughter had been working at a hospital in Hot Springs, and she was a member of the Rotary Club there because they had already accepted women,” he said. “She moved up here to take a position at the Berryville hospital, and the club could not refuse her as a member because she was already a member.”
He said Noble joined in 1996 and was elected club president in 1997.
“She was the first female member of the club and the first female president of the club,” Ham said. “She was pregnant at the time, so she joked that she was the first pregnant member of the club, too.”
He continued, “The change was coming. Everyone knew you had to accept women in the club because if they’re professionals then they need to have the same footing and opportunity to make contacts. That’s why it’s so important.”
He said his daughter came along at just the right time when those changes were happening.
“That was one of those things that was kind of exciting,” he said.
Aside from changes in membership, Ham said the club’s format is almost identical to what it was when he joined in 1970.
“A lot of Rotary Clubs don’t sing anymore,” he said, “but other Rotarians who visit our club have said it’s neat that we still do. A lot of guys tell us ‘I wish our club did that.’ ”
Other Rotarians in the Berryville chapter said they have loved having Ham as both a member and the pianist.
Bob Moore, a longtime Rotarian and publisher of Carroll County Newspapers, said Ham has a great sense of humor and makes Rotary Club a fun place to be.
“The thing I remember most about Keith is how, before women were in Rotary International, he would bring his wife, June, to the meetings,” Moore said. “We introduced our wives as ‘Rotary Anns’ at the time, and he would always say ‘This is my Rotary Ann. Our stove is broken, so we came here to get another good meal.’ ”
He said he also appreciates how Ham has kept the singing tradition going.
“With him being piano player, visiting Rotarians always mention how it’s nice to be back in a singing club,” Moore said.
Johnice Dominick, Rotary president and regional library administrator for the Carroll and Madison Library System, said Ham has been a vital member of the Berryville Rotary Club.
“Keith has seen Rotary change for the better over the decades he has been a member,” she said, “and has been integral in improvements to our club, especially in mentoring newer, younger members.”
Joe Scott, a longtime Rotarian and director of the Berryville Parks and Recreation Department, said Ham has been an inspiration to many club members, including himself.
“He’s one of our longstanding members, and it’s an inspiration to see members like him be there so long and keep doing good things,” Scott said. “He exemplifies the Rotary motto of ‘Service above self,’ which is all about what you can do for your community.”
He continued, “He and his wife are genuinely sweet people, and they’re so much fun to have around. I love sitting with Keith and reminiscing about the area. That’s what Rotary is about, sharing memories and camaraderie with others.”
Ham said he has visited Rotary Clubs across the world, including Thailand, England, Sweden and Denmark. One thing is a constant, he said: the welcoming attitude of Rotarians.
“It doesn’t make any difference where you’re at,” he said. “When you go to Rotary, everybody says ‘Hey! We’re glad you’re here.’ It makes you feel like a guest.”