John Brodbeck

Rotary fosters heart to help

“John truly believes the Rotary motto of ‘service above self.’ He gives and gives. I have never asked anything of John in regards to Rotary that he told me ‘no’ on.” — Courtney Palfreeman, executive director of the Springdale Rotary Club.

John Brodbeck has been married to his lovely wife, Marilee, for 55 years.

He's been a devoted member of Rotary International, his second true love, for nearly as long. He joined his first Rotary group 50 years ago, in Trinidad, of all places, and has had perfect attendance since. ("It's easy," he says. "You just go.")

Rotary Awards and Honors

Member of four clubs

Started two clubs

District Governor of two Rotary International Districts


Distinguished Service Award

Arch Klumph Society

Meritorious Service Award

Perfect Attendance since 1967

Paul Harris Society

Paul Harris Fellow

Past President

Rotary International Service Above Self Award

Sustaining Award

He's had an interesting life, to say the least.

"I've always wanted to skydive, but I haven't done that," he says. "Yet."

Brodbeck was born on a farm on the outskirts of Swanton, Ohio, during the Great Depression, and he characterizes his family as "dirt poor." His father, a hard-working German immigrant, died of pneumonia when Brodbeck was just 3 years old.

"We lived in a three-bedroom farmhouse. My mother eventually got remarried and had three more kids. Now there [were] nine of us living in this three-bedroom farmhouse. In luxury." Brodbeck's chuckle is infectious. "Of course, the toilet was outside, 100 feet from the house!

"Now, if you know anything about Ohio, this would be [considered] a nice winter day," he says of the chilly weather in the low teens outside his Springdale home.

"But, in a way, I see being born poor as a blessing, because it teaches you that nobody gives you anything. When [there are] seven kids and two grown-ups, you have to hustle for yourself. They always said I tried to get the biggest piece of pie."

Brodbeck's voice gets a bit husky when he remembers the hard work that was required to survive as a child.

"My brother and I used to work neighboring farms for 30 or 40 cents an hour, and you saved it. Because if you wanted something, you paid for it. We joined the Cub Scouts and the Boy Scouts, and we had to pay our own dues. It was 25 cents or whatever a week that you paid the scout master. I remember going to visit a Boy Scout camp, but it [cost] about 10 or 12 dollars for a week. Of course, we couldn't go. But you don't make a fuss about it. You just don't go if you don't have it. We never thought we were poor, because everybody else was poor."

Despite his circumstances, Brodbeck remembers many things from his time in Swanton fondly -- meeting his sweetheart Marilee, for example, who was four years behind him in school. And saving up with his brother to buy a Pontiac convertible for the two to share.

He knows a Portuguese proverb that sums up his feelings for his upbringing nicely: "What was hard to bear is sweet to remember."

Arkansas on hold

Not quite ready for college immediately following high school, Brodbeck ended up in barber school. He knew he needed to earn a trade, and barbering seemed as good a trade as any. It kept him busy for a few years, but, after serving in the Army for two years in the mid-1950s, he headed to Bowling Green University. When he graduated, he took a job selling feed medications. Eventually, his beat was southern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas.

"That's where I learned how beautiful Northwest Arkansas was," he says. "And that was Arkansas in 1960, not 2017. Very different. I used to stay one week a month in Northwest Arkansas at the Holiday Motel. It was on 71 Business. They gave you a commercial rate; I think it was about nine bucks a night. And that was a good hotel. If the sales people wanted to splurge, we would go to Heinie's Steak House, which was also on 71B. And if you wanted to meet any of the Tyson people, they would be at Neal's Cafe at 6 in the morning with the red trucks."

But then Brodbeck got an offer he couldn't refuse: A company in Springfield, Mo., called Libscomb's -- which manufactured feed and seed -- had an operation in Trinidad and needed someone to help run the business. Brodbeck saw it as an exciting opportunity and accepted. By this time, he and Marilee -- who had graduated from Miami University in the interim -- were married and welcoming their first child, a baby girl.

"The adventure appealed [to us]," he remembers. "Doing something that other people didn't want or couldn't do. People thought we were crazy. It probably helps to be a little crazy to do things like that."

Their new home was not without its challenges.

"Let's put it this way: The first week, we saw a tarantula on the wall," he says. The tropical climate meant humid temperatures, lots of mosquito netting and rather primitive housing that required the young family to purchase their own water heater. Traveling back home was difficult because of the expense.

"We missed weddings," says Marilee wistfully. "[We] missed a lot."

Still, Brodbeck and Marilee remember their 12 years there fondly. Faded photographs in their family albums show sandy beaches with blue water, happy kids in bathing suits and parties where adults are wearing floor-length formal gowns. ("They dressed up more there than we do here," says Marilee.)

And it's where he first got involved with Rotary, an organization that he would come to love, when he helped open the St. Charles charter in Trinidad.

"Rotary is a fellowship," says Brodbeck, explaining why the organization holds a special place in his heart. "Getting to meet different people from different walks of life. Rotary started on the principle of including all different vocations and professions. You wouldn't want to have all bankers or all newspaper people. You don't want everyone thinking the same."

Heading home

Toward the end of their time in Trinidad, Marilee's stepfather died. Her brother suggested to Brodbeck that he move back to the United States to help take on the family business. Though he had assumed the position of general manager of Libscomb Caribbean, the thought of moving back stateside was alluring. By now, the family had added another daughter, and Brodbeck and Marilee thought it might be time to live closer to family. So back to Swanton they went. Brodbeck helped run the family business while Marilee taught school.

"The only problem in a small town is that they start calling on you to get involved in different things," Brodbeck says. "So the year after I got there, I was on the school board and the Chamber of Commerce, and then they say, 'Hey, how about joining the Zoning and Planning Commission for the town?'"

Brodbeck and Marilee spent a very busy 23 years back in Swanton. Their girls graduated from Swanton High School, the fourth generation in Marilee's family to do so. Broderick and Marilee had reestablished their roots in the town, but when they had a chance to sell the family business and retire, they took it. Their daughters had both ended up in Northwest Arkansas -- where one still works for Walmart and the other for the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks -- so Brodbeck thought it was time to revisit the area he found so beautiful as a traveling salesman in the 1960s. The couple moved to Holiday Island.

"[The girls] said, 'OK, you can move down here, but not too close,'" says Brodbeck, laughing. "We liked it. We were on the golf course, and it's a laid-back community. I got involved in the crime watch program, because the average age there [means] anybody that's under 70 is a young man: 'Hey, we can put you to work!'"

Characteristically, Brodbeck found himself deeply involved in the community, working with the homeowners' association, the county election commission, volunteering for area political candidates and, of course, joining the Rotary Club in nearby Eureka Springs.

"He became a spark plug for the Eureka Springs club," says friend and fellow Rotarian Lewis Epley. "He's always been someone that helps take charge. He's a 'Get it done' kind of person. When John talks, he gets 6 feet tall."

The Brodbecks stayed in Holiday Island until a tragedy struck the family.

"It was seven or eight years ago," Brodbeck says slowly. "Our daughter's husband died unexpectedly. She was left with a set of twins that were 3 years old and a boy that was 10 or 11. So that's when we said, 'Hey, we can't drive back and forth from Holiday Island to pick the kids up from school,' you know, like we did just yesterday."

Brodbeck's tone is matter of fact as he explains how he did what he has done for much of his life: He saw a need, and he stepped in to help. He and Marilee moved to Springdale to be closer to his daughters and to be an extra set of hands to help take care of the grandchildren.

Rotary rewards

Brodbeck wasted no time getting involved with the local Rotary chapter. Courtney Palfreeman, Springdale Rotary Club executive director, says Brodbeck is a "treasure" to the club.

Former Rotary President Rolf Wilkin calls Brodbeck a "giant among men" and points out that Brodbeck is a member of the Rotary's Arch Klumph Society, signifying that he is in the highest tier of Rotary donors.

"He's the kind of guy who, at the church supper, he's picking up chairs and bussing the tables," says Wilkin. "He's always there with a smile. He's always encouraging. My life has been made so much richer just by his friendship."

"I feel blessed -- that an old, dumb farm boy from Ohio could move to Northwest Arkansas and meet people like Fred Vorsanger, Gerald Harp, Lewis Epley, Dick Trammel and others," says Brodbeck. "When someone insignificant like me can meet people like that and call them friends -- that's because of Rotary.

"The purpose of the club is to do good while you're fellowshipping with different people. You're giving back to your community, and you don't have to do it all yourself -- because through the Rotary Foundation, you can reach people three or four thousand miles away from you. They do projects, and, while you may not be there to see it, you're part of it. Because you've helped a little."

Brodbeck has personal experience with helping those thousands of miles away. He's been to dozens of different countries on behalf of Rotary, footing the bill for his travel expenses as well as donating to the cause at hand. He took four fellow Rotarians on a group study exchange to India.

"We were there during the time that they inoculated about 130 million people in a polio eradication drive," remembers Brodbeck. "It was a big deal all over India. We participated in it. I was able to put a couple of drops in kids' mouths. You think it's simple, but, when you do it and you know you're saving that child from a life of polio, you begin to think you have a palsy, your hand is shaking so."

Wilkins says that polio eradication has been a large part of Rotary International's focus -- the organization is a partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, established in 1988 -- and, as an active member of Rotary for 50 years, Brodbeck has contributed a great deal toward that goal.

"Once there were thousands of people all over the world being paralyzed by polio, and now it's down to a handful of cases in three countries," says Wilkins.

Epley, a survivor of polio, credits Brodbeck for getting the Eureka Springs Rotary Club actively involved in fundraising for polio eradication after a Colorado Rotarian visited the Eureka Springs club to raise awareness of the program. When he finished with his presentation, Epley, who had never before spoken in public about his experiences surviving polio, found himself standing up in front of the group to share his story.

"I challenged our club to raise the money [for the initiative] and, that morning, we raised $3,000 before the breakfast was over. John, knowing how the Rotary district works and the possibility of some matching funds, went to the district and came up with $3,000 of matching funds. The club raised another $1,000 after that for a total of $7,000 for the program."

Epley says Brodbeck then encouraged him to tell his survivor's story to other Rotary clubs and at yearly conferences.

"John thought my story was important and would help put a face on why Rotary was trying to eradicate polio in the world."

"He is committed to Rotary because of the good that happens in various ways through Rotary locally, nationally and internationally," says Bob Arthur, Springdale Rotary president. "He is very generous and quite knowledgeable about the workings of Rotary. John has been a great help and asset to me."

In March, Brodbeck will travel to Mexico on a mission to deliver wheelchairs to poverty-ridden areas. He thinks it's imperative to continue giving, despite the fact that he's given so much in the past.

"We need to ask, 'What about the person who desperately needs our help today? What about the children of the world who are dying because they do not have food, water, or shelter?'" he says. "Do you just say, 'Sorry,' and forget about them?

"I will continue to travel with Rotary as long as the good Lord allows me to climb up the stairs," he says. "Of course, the moving sidewalks they have at airports now might extend my life."

Saved to serve

Brodbeck has spent some time pondering where his desire to help originates. He thinks it may have something to do with an event that took place on July 4, 1952. On that hot summer day, Brodbeck nearly drowned in a local quarry commonly used as a swimming hole when he found himself in deeper waters than he expected.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he says. His voice breaks. It takes him some time to tell this story. "You think of your family and friends. And I gave up. You fight with every strength that God gave you, and then you relax."

When Brodbeck regained consciousness, he was laid out on a concrete slab, coughing up water. A man had pulled him out of the swimming hole and saved his life.

"I can't remember if I thanked him. When you're 18 you think you're immortal. I got up and dried off and got in the car to go back, because we had a parade that day in my little hometown. And I forgot about that [incident] for 40 years.

"I would not be here except for a stranger helping me."

Brodbeck pauses to reflect on his memories.

"It's been a good ride," he says. "But I've got a lot of things to do before I leave this world. I need to get cracking."

NAN Profiles on 01/29/2017