By Jessica Doherty
On the heels of the Oneonta Club’s Golden Anniversary and looking ahead to the Oneonta Club Foundation’s 50th anniversary, both organizations are celebrating community and connection across generations.
The Oneonta Club was founded in 1923 by a group of 12 men repairing the schools in South Pasadena. The supper-and-song club took on new life when Philip V. Swan founded the Oneonta Club Foundation in 1975, cementing an annual scholarship that began with the namesake club in 1955.
Beyond money, both the Oneonta Club and Foundation have served as an important glue for generations of South Pasadena men.
“My dad truly believed South Pasadena was the center of the universe,” said Philip A. Swan, son of Philip V. Swan.
Swan Jr. attended meetings as a young man alongside Southern California sports legends like Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda and USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux. No matter how prominent the speakers or members, he said his father would keep everyone late to sing songs together.
Current president of the Oneonta Club Foundation, Dean Serwin, said the group’s origins were founded with social club intentions.
“The club is not a networking organization, it is not an advocacy group — we get together to exchange pleasantries, ideas and friendship,” he said.
“It’s quirky and a little goofy, and I think all the more reason for my dad to say let’s do something serious here,” Swan Jr. said.
That idea to create something intentional transformed into a fundraising effort, part of which is reserved for three lucky South Pasadena High School students to each receive a $10,000 scholarship. Serwin hopes that, in the coming years, there can be four winners.
“He wasn’t looking to give the money to the student with the highest GPA, the biggest resume or highest test scores,” former chairman of the Oneonta Foundation Bill Cullinane said of Swan Sr.’s vision for the scholarship. “He was looking for someone that was passionate about what they did and [who] he thought would make a difference in the world.”
There’s a social aspect to winning the scholarships as well, according to Serwin. “Who would I want to sit and have lunch with in five, 10, 15 years and enjoy the conversation because of what an interesting, dynamic person they are?” he said.
Cullinane finds that there is more to the award than money, noting that some recipients have said “it was the first time anybody affirmed ‘that I was really good … that I was worthy of the award.’”
Cullinane stays in touch with many of the scholarship recipients, like 2019 scholarship recipient Lauren Kafkaloff. After growing up in South Pasadena, she went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania and became a software engineer. While a student at SPHS, she brought her peers together as the commissioner general (also known as the student body president) and as editor of the yearbook.
“I think it will forever have a trace on how I got here,” she said, noting the Oneonta scholarship helped her with purchasing additional textbooks and equipment for main courses and electives. “The scholarship] lifted this mental toll of going to a private school, despite how great the public school system is in California.”
She and Cullinane still correspond via email — and Cullinane shares her updates with the rest of the club. At the heart of the club and foundation is the desire for connection.
“Where [else] do you have a group of men from their 30s to their 90s all getting together in a casual setting?” Serwin asks.
That intergenerational spirit of community has been baked into the Oneonta Club since the beginning. Board member and Swan Sr.’s son-in-law Eric Steen was brought into the club when he moved back to South Pasadena in his 30s by a neighbor in his 60s. He moved away for a time but has since returned to South Pasadena — and the Oneonta Club.
Steen reflected on how the club’s membership has changed over time, especially as he has aged. Back when he first joined, he recalled thinking a lot of older men were involved. “Now, I’m one of the older guys, and men my children went to grade school with are a part of the club,” he said. “There are a lot of familiar faces, but there are also all these new faces.”
First published in the February 2 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.