Rotarians from Texas are heading to Oak Park next week to honor and offer memories of Anne Smedinghoff, yet another indicator of the powerful impact the young River Forest native had as a Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan before her death there on April 6.
Smedinghoff had been working with a Rotary Club in Texas on a project the group was sponsoring. She had broached the possibility with the Texans of starting a Rotary Club in Kabul. Those connections will lead 18 Rotarians from Texas to Oak Park on Wednesday where a joint meeting with the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club will honor her.
Smedinghoff, in her position with the State Department, had developed tangential ties with Rotary International, an umbrella organization for local Rotary clubs that focus on service activities in their regions. She first became associated with a Texas branch of the organization after serving as the contact person for a program the branch was running. The program coordinated supply donations to schools in the Kabul area, according to Rotary International Assistant District Governor for Texas Jim Moore.
Her ultimate goal, fueled by local Afghans' interest and her own desire to help in the local community, was to work with the Texas club she was in contact with to establish a Rotary Club based in Kabul.
Smedinghoff's effort to establish the club fit well in her service-based work with the Foreign Service, according to her father, Tom Smedinghoff. She mainly focused her work as a diplomat on addressing local issues, specifically those concerning women. The planned Rotary Club was designed to be an extension of that work.
"She was involved and very interested [in Rotary] because of the role the women had in the organization of the [Rotary] chapter as well as the small local businesses," Tom Smedinghoff said.
His daughter had talked to him specifically about an interested Afghan woman who owned an area bowling alley and held meetings to discuss the club's establishment.
However, Anne's work to create the club was cut short by her death. At the time of her death, Smedinghoff was attempting to deliver books to a local school in a separate initiative from her work with the Texas Rotary.
Rotary District Governor of Texas J.D. Simpson said he and other Texas Rotarians plan to continue pursuing Smedinghoff's goal to establish a Kabul club as a way to honor and remember her work. But Simpson said the Taliban presence in the area, which Smedinghoff had to deal with when working with the local population, remains a major issue Rotary organizers have to face.
"It is not like starting a Rotary Club in Chicago. You have to jump through a lot of hoops," Simpson said. "[Anne] was there on the ground and she had that desire and that passion, [so] we here in Texas have made it a mission of ours that we do get a Rotary Club started in Kabul."
After news of Smedinghoff's death April 6, several organizers from Texas Rotary clubs who had communicated with Smedinghoff contacted the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club to hold a June 5 luncheon in her honor. The joint meeting of Rotary Clubs will include 18 representatives from Texas and the presentation of a Rotary award to Smedinghoff's family to commemorate her service.
Rotary organizers who will be attending the honorary luncheon plan to emphasize Smedinghoff's adherence to the organization's mission through her work in the Kabul area.
"Even though she was not a Rotarian … she was doing exactly what Rotarians do, which is striving for peace through service," Simpson said.
Lesley Gottlinger, president of the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club, seconded Simpson's statements, saying Smedinghoff truly made a difference through her work.
"Her legacy of service, though only three short years, will leave a lasting impression on those who knew her and those who only knew of her," Gottlinger said.
Smedinghoff's father said he hoped the luncheon and the attention his daughter has received for her work in Kabul would help people recognize and further the support for the work and projects that Foreign Service officers do in Afghanistan.
"One of the things we have learned about Anne is that there is a lot of good, positive work that the Foreign Service officers do around the world," Tom Smedinghoff said. "She was doing things that were helping to make a positive difference and we are very grateful that [the Rotarians] are honoring her."