‘When Douglas died, I was shocked, unprepared and overwhelmed by the idea of running the family firm... Rotary was a lifeline in the hardest time I’ve ever faced’
Rosemary Simpson, from Lisburn was bereft after her husband passed away 10 years ago. But the former nurse went on to discover a new world of friends, social support and charitable work through the Belfast Rotary club, as she tells Stephanie Bell.
The new female president of Belfast Rotary has made it her mission to encourage more women to join what was once regarded as a men-only club.
Rotary was a lifeline for Rosemary Simpson, a retired nurse from Lisburn, when she was left bereft following the death of her husband, Douglas, from cancer 10 years ago.
Douglas was a lifelong member of the Belfast club and a great advocate for opening it up to female members.
He would be delighted to know that Rosemary now has an active role in his former club and has been appointed president — only the second woman to hold the post in Belfast.
Even though membership has been open to them since 1989, women still only account for 22% of worldwide Rotary membership.
In the Belfast club, of 74 members, only 12 are female — a statistic Rosemary is intent on changing.
“I’m only the second woman president in Belfast, and the last one was many years ago,” she says.
“It is still rare for women to be in Rotary, but it’s not because the men don’t want women — in fact, they are very keen to encourage women to join.
“I think many people still see it as a men-only club, but this year, as president, I really want to encourage more women to join.
“Rotary is a fantastic way of meeting people. I appreciated the opportunity to meet and make new friends after losing Douglas, but also in the business world, which I was very new to after he died.
“When you lose your partner, you feel very alone. You miss having someone there to discuss the silly wee things you did with your day and just having someone to share things with.
“Rotary changed so much for me and really was a lifeline at the most difficult time of my life. I have made lifelong friends and socialise regularly.
“Douglas would be very happy that I have joined. He was very pro-women and was a member of the Junior Chamber and also fought to get more women into it.
“He was very keen that women be equal partners to men in everything.”
Before retiring, Rosemary worked as a general nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital and then in private practice.
Her husband ran his own commercial weighing scales business, which she took over after he became ill.
Douglas was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which spread to his lungs and eventually his brain. He battled the disease for nine years and enjoyed some periods of remission before dying aged 64.
Rosemary had two children with him — a son and daughter, now grown up. She also has five grandchildren aged from six to 25.
She was a member of the Inner Wheel, which over the years has been seen as a Rotary for women.
But even though Douglas was an active member of Belfast Rotary, she never considered joining until she was approached after his death.
Being new to running a company, she welcomed the support from other members, many of whom come from the business community.
“When Douglas passed away, I was left shocked and somewhat unprepared for dealing with our family business,” Rosemary explains.
“As a former nurse with no business training, I felt the whole prospect was somewhat overwhelming.
“My husband had been a Rotarian for many years and had great personal fulfilment from the friends and business contacts he made, as well as the difference he was making in the world.
“My father-in-law was also heavily involved in the organisation.
“I had always attended Rotary functions alongside Douglas and enjoyed the social scene very much, but I never gave any thought to joining myself.
“All that changed after Douglas’s death. The President of the Rotary Club of Belfast approached me to become editor of Club Magazine — an internal publication within Rotary. This I did eagerly because I had experience through Inner Wheel, being editor of its worldwide publication. And everyone in the club was so welcoming, so I decided to give it a go.”
Rotary International is the world’s first service club organisation.
It has more than 1.2 million male and female business, professional and community leaders who, as members of Rotary clubs, are known as Rotarians.
Rotarians volunteer their time, talents, professional skills and energy to improving the lives of people in their local community and around the world, fulfilling the Rotary motto ‘service above self’.
Having a defined role in Rotary made a big difference to Rosemary, who loves a challenge and now wants to ensure that all new members have a similar passion for the organisation.
“Having a role gave me a purpose to my Rotary membership,” she says. “I found it fulfilling and rewarding and I began to attend regular meetings with a renewed vigour.
“Joining Rotary meant that I had something to look forward to, a network of friends around the same age as me from all walks of life and who all had similar views and values to me.
“It gave a sense of purpose to my week and allowed me to help do good in the world.
“I became so involved in the club and loved my time with them so much that I became club secretary.
“This allowed me to use my skills and actively make a difference within the club that my husband loved so much.
“This year, as president, I am making it my aim to encourage more women to join, but also to make sure our women members have a role within the club.
“It’s like any organisation — if you don’t get a job, you can lose interest very quickly.
“I think people need to feel wanted and valued.”
Rosemary has also found fulfilment in supporting many local charities through Rotary.
The organisation is renowned worldwide for its charitable work.
It is one of the world’s largest and most successful global membership and humanitarian service organisations, with 35,000 clubs in more than 200 countries.
It is non-political, non-religious and open to all cultures, races and creeds.
Most groups meet weekly for breakfast, lunch or dinner in a friendly, social atmosphere, and meetings often include a talk on a subject of general interest by an outside speaker.
The charitable work is the aspect Rosemary gets most satisfaction from, and she intends to keep it up as president.
She says: “Ten years ago, if you had told me I would be the president of the Rotary Club of Belfast, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now that I am here it has been a most wonderful experience.
“I have been involved in so many wonderful projects, notably in the One Last Push campaign, which is about the eradication of polio.
“Rotary International has been heavily involved in it for many years. “I had a very good friend who lived with polio all of his life, and he was such a great inspiration to me.
“To be involved in a campaign where we actively administer vaccines to children in deprived countries against this harrowing disease is truly humbling and very rewarding.”
The club is also involved in the Silverline project, which is headed up by Esther Rantzen and aims to tackle loneliness in the older generation.
Having found herself alone after the loss of her husband, this project is one particularly close to Rosemary’s heart.
Her club also is set to host Esther Rantzen during a visit in May.
Rosemary lives in the countryside outside Lisburn.
She spends enjoys spending time with her grandchildren, as well as working with Rotary.
“By joining Rotary, I not only helped myself at a very dark and lonely time in my life, but I also felt that I was able to help others,” she says.
“I would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone of any age join this fantastic organisation, which is making such a positive difference to the world.
“The cumulative effect of humanitarian work is limitless.
“It not only gives to the people in need, but it can bring you so much personally and professionally.
“As a caring individual, I have appreciated the opportunities that Rotary has given me to help others — both young and old people — through our involvement in eradicating polio and in giving young people encouragement and support by sending students bi-annually to Chicago in our Towards a Better Understanding scheme.
“We also have always helped disabled children locally and have assisted young people to prepare for the job market through our Youth Action project, while remembering people worldwide through our Shelter Box scheme, which gives people in disaster areas hope and aid.
“What could be a more satisfying and worthwhile way to reach out and give service above self?”
To find out more about Rotary visit www.rotary-ribi.org