Longtime Rotarian reaches milestone with Klumph award


IMLAY CITY — Columbia, Zambia, Mexico, Thailand, and the Philippines are all a long, long way from North Branch. For one farm boy with big ideas, big curiosity and a bigger heart, they’ve become familiar places where friends and colleagues and great memories reside.

Retired veterinarian Dr. Jim Sillers, raised on a North Branch dairy farm, has visited each of those foreign places—some more than once—on humanitarian missions developed through Rotary. His generosity and service spans more than 30 years and his dedication to the mission to create lasting change in the world is exemplary. Sillers’ efforts were recognized on Saturday, August 12 as local and international Rotarians gathered for his induction into the Arch Klumph Society. After receiving a lapel pin to mark the milestone, Rotary past district governor Tanya Wolff summed up the accomplishment.

Longtime Rotarian Dr. Jim Sillers is all smiles as his granddaughter Avis Schapman affixes Arch Klumph Society pin to his lapel.

“Jim Sillers exemplifies the model of ‘Service Above Self,’” said Wolff. “Through his dedication and efforts, he has created hope in the world.”

The luncheon, held at The Huntsman Hunt Club in Dryden, was also a service-oriented affair, raising some $38,218 for Rotary’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

From cattle to catalyst

Jim Sillers was always curious about other cultures and countries even when he was doing chores and helping out on the farm. He got to experience a bit of that as his family hosted a number of foreign exchange students through 4-H’s International Youth Farm Exchange program. His mom, June Sillers, was a school teacher and was very service minded, Jim says.

“My mom and 4-H had a big influence on my life,” he says.

As a 4-Her, Jim reached top status in his 4-H endeavors in 1965 at age 18. That earned him a trip to New York City, where he met retail giant founder JC Penney. A fellow cattle farmer, Penney bred angus cattle, including a bull that helped advance the breed. After numerous ups and downs in the farming industry, in 1947 Penney paid $30,000 for an angus bull to help rebuild his herd. During the 1964 visit, Jim saw a framed newspaper article hanging on Penney’s office wall, written when the bull was purchased.

“I’ll always remember it because the headline read ‘A lot of bull for a Penney,’” Jim grins.

The 4-H adventure didn’t end there. Jim and two other top 4-H youths visited Washington, D.C. where they met Sergeant Shriver, the driving force behind the creation of the Peace Corps, then Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, and President Lyndon B. Johnson himself.

Jim says he and his 4-H colleagues, along with their chaperones, practiced presenting the 4-H bell to the President several times before doing so.

“Every time I handed the bell over it clanged, and the chaperones didn’t like that,” he recalls with a chuckle. “So to solve the problem, they duct-taped the bell.”

Reporters from around the country were at the White House when the the big event took place. Jim handed the bell over to President Johnson, who immediately tried to ring it. Flashbulbs popped as the the pair worked to release the clapper, and the photo ended up on the front page of newspapers everywhere. The President planned to hang the bell at the LBJ Ranch.

Service Above Self

When the late Gene Coscarelli, beloved banker, community leader and friend approached Jim Sillers about joining the Imlay City Rotary Club in 1991, Jim had no idea where it would lead.

Though he was very busy with his veterinary practice, Jim dove in to Rotary activities full force. He was inspired by Coscarelli’s humanitarian efforts in Thailand and the Philippines, and decided to take the plunge and volunteer for missions there. He was blown away by the experiences.

“We were at a mission hospital with a group of doctors to perform cataract surgery,” Jim says. “A man came in with his four kids and it was too late in the day for the surgery. They made room at the hospital and he and the kids cuddled together and spent the night.”

The next day, the man’s cataracts were removed—and Jim will never forget what he saw.

“The look on his face when he saw his children was amazing,” he says. “He was literally seeing his children for the first time.”

Another memorable—and somewhat harrowing—amazing experience occurred. While traveling to the hospital in Thailand, Jim noticed two people walking down the road with a hammock suspended on a long pole. There was a person in the hammock.

A while later, they showed up at the hospital. The person in the hammock was a pregnant woman in extreme distress and needed a C-section in order to give birth.

Jim and his fellow Rotary volunteers looked at each other, wondering what to do.

“We had a housewife, a minister, a pharmacist and a veterinarian and, well, guess who was chosen to do the C-section,” Jim grins. Fortunately, all went well.

When he and other Rotary volunteers weren’t on medical missions, they were helping build classrooms in Columbia and Africa. Today, students take lessons in a ‘James Sillers Classroom’ in Columbia and hone their science skills in Zambia, where dilapidated classrooms where repaired and refurbished. Before the renovations, the average score for science students was in the 30s. In just one year’s time in the new rooms, the average score rose to the low 90s.

Jim says these and many other projects have been made possible through the Rotary Global Grant program, which involves a rigorous application process involving a needs assessment in the community, sustainability of the project and more.

Love for life

Jim still tears up when he talks about his wife Ann, who passed away of breast cancer in 2014. A beloved Imlay City school teacher, Ann was active in her church, and also embarked on a medical mission in South Africa. She and Jim hosted a number of exchange students throughout the years, while they were raising their four kids. One exchange student—Ken from Canada—stayed long enough to graduate from Imlay City High School in 1992. At age 18, he legally changed his last name to Sillers, and went on to join the Canadian Army where he served on the Disaster Assistance Response team performing humanitarian missions around the world during his 25 year career. He says Jim was his inspiration.

While Jim’s inspiration to create change and help others seems boundless, it continues to grow and lead to new adventures. He seems to be a very happy man, and he’s very grateful.

“When I joined I had no idea that Rotary would become such an important part of my life,” he says.