Then-Westhampton Rotary Club President Bob Knotoff and his wife, Nancy, were both surprised when someone began knocking on their front door one evening in February 1973. They weren’t expecting any guests, and it was nearly time for supper.Ms. Knotoff recalls opening the door to find a tall, tan and exhausted teenager holding a suitcase on her porch. His name was Sergio Nagai, and the 17-year-old had traveled all the way from Brazil to stay for a semester with a different nearby Rotary host family that, as it turns out, had abruptly left for vacation.
The teenager was deposited on the Knotoffs’ doorstep with no prior notice or permission. Sergio stayed with the couple for the next year and has since become part of their family, which includes their two adult children—Nancy Lynn, now 53, and Robert, now 50.
Fifty years later, the Knotoffs don’t feel any sense of heroism or extraordinary generosity for their actions back then.
“Service above self,” said Ms. Knotoff, 80, simply, quoting the motto of Rotary International.
“He calls me ‘Dad,’” Mr. Knotoff, 79, added, proudly pointing to a photo of a grown-up and graying Sergio with his arm around Mr. Knotoff.
Taking in exchange students—the Knotoffs accepted two more into their home after Sergio—was only a part of what they did during their many years as Rotarians. Another impressive feat was their perfect attendance at the weekly meetings—50 years for Mr. Knotoff, an East Quogue native, starting in 1967, and 30 years for his Southampton-born wife.
Her time was curtailed only because women weren’t admitted as Rotarians until the U.S. Supreme Court forced the clubs to accept female members on May 4, 1987. For the 20 years before that, Ms. Knotoff served as a “Rotary-Ann,” the name given to wives of members who helped out during events and fundraisers.
The Westhampton Rotary Club will hold a celebration to honor the Remsenburg couple’s outstanding dedication and storied club careers on Tuesday, November 21, starting at 6 p.m., at the Claddagh Restaurant in Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $35 per person and interested parties should contact Sharon Abbondondelo at 631-288-7756 or SAbbondondelo@bridgenb.com.
Years before she was being recognized and celebrated for her commitment and courage, Ms. Knotoff would have preferred to avoid the limelight. She explained that being on the front lines of the revolutionary change allowing female members into Rotary was both cowing and uncomfortable.
“When I joined, I was very shy,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I wasn’t really out in the public much. I was home for a time raising my kids. It was hard for me in the beginning.”
Noting that she had been around the male members at the Westhampton Rotary Club for many years, Ms. Knotoff said she thinks they responded to her presence better than some other local clubs. She explained that when she went to a different nearby Rotary club to make up a meeting and maintain her perfect attendance, every male member ignored her.
At the end of the awkward meeting, it came time for each Rotarian to put a “happy dollar” into the pot, a practice where members donate a dollar to the club’s treasury, or a charity, and share a positive event in their lives. One member, a doctor, Ms. Knotoff recalls, dropped in his dollar and expressed his gratitude for her presence at the meeting. “Then I felt better, and they talked to me,” she said. “It was strained. I think they just didn’t know how to react.”
Rotary propelled the Knotoffs into the midst of turbulent social change, turning a timid Rotary-Ann into a trailblazing Rotarian who handled the weekly meeting attendance and spearheaded international relations for the club for years. A decade later, the club also physically transported them to distant and unfamiliar lands.
In 1997, the couple traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, in search for a service project that matched the size of their passion and desire to give back. They explored the most desperate parts of the city, witnessing poverty in the city’s slums the likes of which they’d never imagined.
“At the orphanage, the kids would line up to get gruel from the back of a truck,” Mr. Knotoff recalled. “They brought whatever they had to eat it out of. Some had little cups or bowls, but a couple just had to stretch a piece of cloth and eat out of that.”
The Knotoffs were moved and decided to pay for 30 young homeless boys to attend a local boarding school for three years. They bought the boys uniforms and books, and reserved spots for them in the dormitories.
“The biggest problem was getting the boys to stay in a bed,” Mr. Knotoff said. “They just weren’t used to it.”
“The staff had to recondition them to feel safe sleeping in a building,” added Ms. Knotoff. “And that whatever possessions they put in the little bureaus in their rooms wouldn’t be stolen.”
Upon their return to Westhampton Beach following that trip, the Knotoffs discovered that the Rotary Club had actually become an integral part of their Westhampton life. Throughout the years, that community had encouraged their commitment to the village, with Mr. Knotoff serving, at various times, as president of both the Rotary Club and the Greater Westhampton Chamber of Commerce. His wife served as president of the Westhampton Beach Nursery School and spearheaded the village’s Outdoor Art show.
The couple, who have been married for 57 years, built the Hampton Stationery building in Westhampton Beach Village. They no longer own the building.
“It’s just nice to have somewhere to go every week, somewhere you’re expected every week,” said Ms. Knotoff, referring to the Rotary meetings. “I actually think it’s more important to us now than when Bob first joined, when we were so young and starting out.”
Longtime Rotarians recognize the couple’s dedication and have come to intrinsically associate them with the good works of the club, which now boasts 75 members, including 18 women. Thomas Kerr, a Rotarian since 1981, says simply: “They always came. Since my first project when we planted beach grass along a jetty, they were involved in every single project.”
Westhampton Rotary Club President Paul Haines, a member since 1991 and president since June 20, calls the Knotoffs “stalwarts” of the organization. “They are always there, year after year, and that’s the key to a club like this,” he said, adding that the female revolution Ms. Knotoff helped usher in has created the current “backbone” of the group.
“One of my friends once said, ‘Rotary is the same thing as church,’” Mr. Knotoff said.
“But the spiritual part is doing the right thing,” Ms. Knotoff added.