The Rogue River Valley University Club is located at 218 West Sixth Street. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore

University Club turns 100

Various movers and shakers of Jackson County have been gathering under the banner of the Rogue River Valley University Club for an even century.

In the social club's early decades, members were ramblers, moving from place to place and meeting in a variety of locations, ranging from the Mail Tribune office to the stately Vawter House.

Shortly after World War II the club found a permanent residence in the former Home Telephone office building at 218 W. Sixth St. in downtown Medford.

For years, Jackson County's leading citizens gathered to play cards, exchange views and occasionally formulate public policy. On Oct. 15, the University Club's board convened where it started, in the Mail Tribune's conference room, albeit one much different from the original one and at a different address.

"It was a boys club; they had all been to college and were stuck out West without a lot of associations," said past president Jerry Lambo, a Medford High, Oregon State University and Harvard Business School graduate, who became a career military officer then a banker and later served on the Grace Commission during the Reagan Administration.

"I didn't have a clue about it when I was growing up," said Lambo, who moved to Medford before the eighth grade. "I used to go down to the Holly Theatre because it was the best one in town. But I never bothered to look at the building standing there next to it."

The club began in 1910 with 47 charter members, including 12 from Yale, eight from Harvard and six from the University of Minnesota. Four came from Stanford and three each came from Columbia, Cornell, Michigan, University of Oregon and Williams College. The average age was 30 — far younger than today. Although the founders were all graduates, the charter requires only that members have attended college.

Eastern patrician families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries usually passed their primary business holdings on to their eldest sons. But younger siblings weren't necessarily left to fend for themselves and often headed west with money and ambitions.

"The eldest would inherit the family's major corporation and the second son would be given a legacy and sent west to make their fortune," Lambo said. "Those second sons came west with lots of money and bought orchards, mills and banks. There was a lot of money coming into this valley."

Those college-educated young men became leaders in developing the West. Here they became lawyers, doctors, orchardists and industrial leaders developing institutions such as COPCO, forerunner of Pacific Power.

As a result, an accumulation of wealth became centered in a relatively small region. An oft-cited statistic lingering from 90 years ago is that Medford had the highest per capita automobile ownership in the nation among communities of fewer than 100,000.

Yet, social circles were limited.

To fill that vacuum, a group of business and industry leaders began discussion of forming a club in 1909. The first University Club board meeting was in mid-October 1910. The original charter stated that the club's purpose was to increase social contacts and enhance community development. The goals were reaffirmed Oct. 15 at the centennial board meeting.

The collegiate mix of the club is still eclectic, but favors Oregon schools. Doctors, lawyers, business people and other professionals account for today's membership.

Former Congressman Bob Smith and former State Rep. Leigh Johnson are on the roster. The gender barrier was broken in 2004 when Sue Kupillas and Mary Warrick became the first female members. Six women are now in the club, including Circuit Court Judge Lisa Greif. Four Hispanic residents have joined, but the club still awaits its first African-American member.

The group took a step beyond its social club status two years ago. Inspired by former Harry & David chief executive Bill Williams and others, the club created a foundation and began awarding college scholarships to local high-school students in 2009.

An alcove near the club's front door is used to acknowledge contributions made over the years. A memorial in honor of Fitz Brewer, a member of the Medford financial community and supporter of local athletics, will be displayed there.

The club has been the subject of two histories, one by Seth Bullis in 1959 and a second by Bill Aldrich in 1973, detailing the club's progression. While they are in agreement on most points, dates are often off by a day or two.

"They are very consistent when they talked about organization meetings," Lambo said. "The confusion is in the dates when meetings occurred. One would say on one date and one on a different."

Thus, no one is 100 percent certain whether the first board meeting was on Oct. 15 — when the official centennial meeting was held — or Oct. 14.

From 1916 to 1933 the club met at the Phipps Building on East Main Street. It then moved briefly to the stately Vawter House at 1000 W. Main St., before becoming dormant during the depths of the Great Depression.

A renewed University Club set up shop at 123 E. Main St., in 1937 before moving to its present quarters on Sixth Street, adjacent to the Holly Theatre, in 1946. The former telephone building had served as a junior officer's club for Camp White during World War II. Alfred Carpenter and his wife, Helen, transferred ownership of the building to the club in 1958.

Although dozens of University Clubs exist around the country, many of them affiliated nationally, the local club has retained its independence. By the last quarter of the 20th century, the local University Club had become a repository of local knowledge and history.

"In 1976, I came back to the valley after I graduated from college and could sit in a social setting and learn about the valley from doctors, attorneys and other professionals," said third-generation member Bill Thorndike Jr. "The nice thing was you didn't belong to the club to sell anything to anyone and didn't proselytize for politics or religion. It was really a place to talk about who has the best football team in the state and where things are going in the community."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail

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