When Leigh Hudson became president of the Clayton Rotary club in 2009, the club’s faint vital signs suggested a group on its way out. A year later, the club had more than doubled in size, and a second Clayton Rotary club had started meeting as well.
With that turnaround, district-level leaders took notice and fast-tracked Hudson into a leadership post. In July, he became the governor of District 7710, a collection of 46 clubs in a 10-county, Triangle-based region.
“They were talking about closing the club down,” former district governor Rick Carnagua said of the Clayton club that Hudson helped resurrect. “Basically, they went back and started from zero, like they were starting a new club. His leadership caught the eye of other people in the district.”
These days, civic clubs and small businesses often struggle. But Hudson, with strong support from his wife, Pug, ignores those trends and thrives at the head of both.
Hudson’s parents founded Hudson’s Hardware & Outdoor Equipment, now a Garner institution for 55 years, when he was 6 years old. He took control when his father retired in 1980 and bought out his brother’s half in 2000. The store remains a pillar in the Garner business community despite two hardware giants moving into town. Hudson has kept the business thriving in part by diversifying its offerings to include things like animal feed. Hudson’s also has a store in Clayton.
As a business owner, Hudson joined the Garner Rotary club in 1981. He moved his membership to Clayton in 1985 and has been active there ever since. Hudson served as president of the Clayton club in 1989-90, right around the time Rotary clubs admitted their first women.
Rotary clubs vary in the causes they support. The Clayton club focuses on a range of organizations, including work with Salvation Army, Stop Hunger Now, the YMCA and dozens of others, Hudson said.
Last March, Hudson found yet another cause that really gripped him. Carnagua, the former district governor and a member of the Cary-Page Rotary Club, invited area Rotarians to join him on a mission to Santiago in the Dominican Republic. Hudson signed up, and the group installed 40 latrines in the impoverished city.
It was Hudson’s first mission trip abroad and his first exposure to people who had so little. He felt bad leaving Santiago knowing they lacked something even more basic than a bathroom.
“We gave them a nice private place to go to the bathroom, but we left them with dirty water,” Hudson said. “Forty percent of diseases could be stopped (with clean water).”
Hudson plans to return this year to build more latrines and install nearly 400 water filters in homes. “There’s just so much we can do,” he said. “I just feel so privileged being part of a Rotary organization that’s doing more and more work with poor populations around the world.”
Reversing the tide
Rotary clubs nationwide, Hudson said, have seen stagnant membership since 1978. For every new member, at least one leaves. The pains felt by the Clayton club, where membership slipped from the mid-40s to 19, were acute, but not anomalous.
Traditionally, Hudson said, Rotarians have come from the ranks of small-business owners, whose numbers are smaller now because big businesses have gained market share. Also, he said, parents today are driving their kids to so many activities – from soccer practice to saxophone lessons– that they don’t have time to attend evening club meetings. That’s why Rotary clubs typically meet at lunch or breakfast now.
With slipping numbers in the Clayton club, morale and commitment also waned. Hudson said some members just attended the weekly meetings, doing little outside of them.
Hudson, again, helped to buck that trend.
He launched an aggressive recruiting effort. In two years, the club had returned to the mid-40s in membership and become more engaged in service. In the process, he found many would-be members who couldn’t do breakfast, so he helped start a lunchtime club.
“A lot of his recruiting ability comes from his background in sales,” Carnagua said. “He meets a lot of people every day. He’s very straightforward about talking to people about Rotary, what it means for him and what it could mean for others.”
Now, Hudson will try to take that growth to the district level, where membership increased by 25 to 1,830 last year. Hudson wants to add 100.
“That’s a very ambitious goal,” Carnagua said. “But if anybody can do it, it’ll probably be him.”