Story by Tony Knoderer
Photos by Julia Vandenoever Photography
Certain things make Bert West instantly recognizable among friends, colleagues and fellow Kiwanians. There is, of course, the hat. Whether he’s at Kiwanis meetings and conventions or managing a roofing supply business in Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States, the cowboy hat marks him as a man of the West. No pun intended.
But no drawback either. For the 2022-23 Kiwanis International president, the hat helps link the name to the man — and helps him stand out from the crowd.
“It’s something that’s unique and fun,” West says with a smile. “When I went to Europe a while ago, I was in Vienna, and I must have taken 100 pictures with people there. And I didn’t know any of them.”
That combination of prominence and personal touch also helps explain West’s success — both professionally and as a Kiwanian. In fact, West sees the two roles as intertwined parts of his life, complementing and strengthening each other.
The value of networking, he says, is “something we don’t talk about enough in Kiwanis.” His own experience shows how networking can influence a Kiwanis club’s growth and its place in a community. But it also shows how Kiwanis, in turn, builds trust and connection among colleagues and contacts.
“When I speak in the business side of my life, I relate my Kiwanis experience — I always encourage people in the business community to get involved in community service,” West says. “When you serve alongside someone, whether it’s at a pancake breakfast or on a playground, whatever it is, they realize you have something extra in common — in a way you don’t when you’re handing your business card to them.”
A Kiwanian for 34 years, West is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Ute Pass Woodland Park, Colorado. By now, he considers Kiwanis to be part of his identity — something that’s always with him. Like his hat.
Oh, and his dog.
That would be Ace the Wonder Dog, West’s black Labrador, hunting buddy and constant companion.
“I’ve always had a dog,” West says. “Always had labs. Ace turned into one of those dogs who’s always with you. We’ve been all over. He even used to be at work with me.”
Ace recently turned 10, so he’s cutting back his work schedule a bit. But he maintains a steady presence in the life of of West and his wife, Sandy.
Whether it’s Ace or Kiwanis or the roofing profession, continuity is a hallmark of West’s life. Growing up in the Central Valley, an inland region of California that runs mostly parallel to the Pacific coast, he got involved in roofing when he was 16.
“Someone at our church just said, ‘You want to come help?’” West recalls. “I said, ‘Sure,’ and I’ve been in the business since. I guess I don’t quit easy.”
That moment led to a job, which led, through the years, to an ever-expanding role in the roofing industry. (It also led to the hat: “I worked outside so much,” he says, “that it just made sense to start wearing one.”) His career now finds him in wholesale retailing in Colorado, where the family — including his two daughters, Megan and Lauren — moved in 1995. Bert and Sandy now reside in the town of Divide.
“We wanted to do it for our kids,” he says. “We thought it would be nice to live in the mountains of Colorado.”
Family, career — in any major move, you bring all the most important things with you. For West, that included Kiwanis.
Learning from experience
West became a Kiwanian in 1988, when he joined the Kiwanis Club of Woodlake, California. In fact, the club was new — and West was its first charter member and president. He was only 24, but he also knew Kiwanis: When he joined, he became a third-generation member.
It started with West’s grandfather, Ernie Korte, a Kiwanis member since the 1940s and governor of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District in 1977-78.
“It was a small town, and everybody knew me,” West says. “It was natural to say, ‘Ernie’s grandson is in town, let’s ask him to join.’”
Even West’s childhood memories include Kiwanis service projects and events: “Before I was going to school, I was going to Christmas programs and singing, or cleaning the tables at pancake breakfasts. I may have been doing more playing than cleaning, but I was there.
“When they asked me to join (as an adult), there was no way I was going to say no.”
West has stayed a member through the years and relocations since then. And he has had multiple leadership positions. For example, he has been president of three clubs, including three terms with the Ute Pass Woodland Park club, and he has served two terms as lieutenant division governor and one term as governor of the Rocky Mountain District.
That experience has given him some perspective on the changes in Kiwanis over the decades — and on the continuing importance of change in the future. For instance, West loves his club’s tradition of weekly, in-person meetings, but he also understands that not everyone can conform their schedules to that format.
He has seen the benefits of flexibility firsthand. Noting how video technologies have broadened the ways members can communicate, he says he has used Zoom himself to stay in touch with the Woodlake, California, club — in which he has maintained a membership over the years.
Back in Colorado, the satellite-club option has also been a success for the Ute Pass Woodland Park club. In fact, Sandy is a member of the satellite club, which does evening meetings, and Bert has been impressed with the mutual support and collaboration.
“A satellite club can be very successful if it’s done right,” he says. “Any opportunity for someone to do service — I don’t care what you call it, it’s useful. Nobody ever said, ‘I wouldn’t do that for that child.’”
The right decision
Now West’s own children are Kiwanians. In fact, his older daughter, Megan, is president of the La-Miss-Tenn Kiwanis E-Club this year. West is proud of that legacy, but his commitment to generational connection goes beyond his own family.
“I was visiting a Kiwanis club and a gentleman talked about bringing his kid to a meeting and ‘ringing the bell’ together,” he says. “That really touched me. And it reminded me that the most important people we can impact are the youngest.”
That’s why K-Kids is a particular focus for West, whose goals for 2022-23 include the opening of 250 new K-Kids clubs.
“Kids are kids everywhere,” he says. “They like to play and have fun together, whether they’re in Europe or the Philippines or Divide, Colorado. K-Kids is a chance to let them know they can make a difference together, anywhere.”
West has found that what’s true for kids is true for Kiwanians: There are adults in every part of the world who want to help children, and if they’re given access to a thriving Kiwanis club, they’ll take the opportunity to make an impact.
The challenge for leaders like West is knowing how to help local clubs make the most of their specific circumstances. His own club, for example, succeeds in part because members know how to fit their goals to their community.
“We’re never going to do a $10,000 fundraiser — that won’t happen in a rural town,” he says. “What we do have is a deep connection with the entire town.”
West’s membership in a rural club helps remind him that while many Kiwanians are driven by a particular passion — whether it’s a program, a project or anything else — their local circumstances often determine how they fulfill them.
“There’s a difference between passion and perspective,” he says. “My perspective is totally different from someone in Manila. I won’t know what’s needed in downtown Chicago or Auckland, New Zealand, the way people there do.”
At the international level, he adds, a Kiwanis leader’s decision “has to be good for everyone or it’s a bad decision. It has to be good for Colorado and for Kuala Lumpur. If it’s not good for them both, it’s not good for Kiwanis.”
Worth the leap
An initiative with the potential for that kind of widespread effectiveness, he says, is the Two For Two program. Introduced earlier this year, it’s a club growth program in which two club members reach out to two prospective members each month. (See kiwanis.org/twofortwo.)
The program was developed from an idea of West’s. In fact, he thought of it while mowing his lawn. (“I have my best ideas when I’m mowing the lawn,” he laughs.) The core of the idea was to get everyone involved in membership growth.
“Most clubs don’t have those one or two members who can do it all,” he says. “But when people are working as a team, you can spread the responsibility and excitement.”
A culture in which every member recruits, he adds, gets more people invested in the club’s fate. And that investment might inspire more of them to seek leadership roles. West can personally attest that it’s worth taking the leap.
“I never walked away from a leadership role saying, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’” he says. “I’ve never had a position with Kiwanis that I didn’t enjoy.”
Now that his position is Kiwanis International president, he can reflect on how much it all matters. During a recent visit with a K-Kids club in Bettendorf, Iowa, someone asked what his big Kiwanis moment was.
“I said, ‘I think it’s with you, right now.’ What I happen to be doing that day is my moment. For me, it’s always that next new memory.”