Rotary International

Rotary was born on the evening of 23 February 1905, when Paul Harris, at the time a young barrister in Chicago, met three friends to discuss an idea that had been haunting him for some time: i.e. to create a club of persons from various professions who would meet regularly in friendship to pass some time together and extend their respective fields of knowledge.

That evening Paul Harris was joined by Silvester Schiele, a coal merchant, Gustavus Loehr, a mining engineer, and Hiram Shorey, a tailor. They met at Loehr’s office in Derarborn Street 127, in the Unity Building which still exists in Chicago. It was the first step in the creation of a men’s club where each member represented his profession. The meetings were held weekly, in turn at the office or home of the members. This rotation was meant to allow each member to acquaint himself with the profession of the others and lead Harris to call his club Rotary.

The four founding members were descendants of different nationalities (American, German, Swedish and Irish), as also their religions were different (protestant, catholic and jewish). They were the product of the American melting pot and were thus the ideal ancestors of that great international movement that would become Rotary International.

After the admission of the fifth member, the printer Harry Ruggles, the group called itself the Rotary Club of Chicago. The first list, dating back to 1905, contains thirty members, with Silvester Schiele as chairman, Will Jensen, a real estate agent, as secretary, Ruggles as treasurer and Dr Will R. Neff, a dentist, “in charge of hospitality”. Paul Harris declined to assume an office in the new club and was elected president only two years later. Ruggles was the first to propose a choir and even in our days the tradition of singing together survives in many clubs.

News of the new organisation spread quickly and soon it became unpractical to hold meetings at members’ offices. The tradition thus arose of holding the weekly meetings in restaurants or hotels. Paul Harris never felt that the Chicago club should exist solely to support members’ business. He firmly believed in the importance of friendship and from the outset hoped that the club would engage in activities of civic interest. In 1907, two years after the club was set up, the first project of interest for the town was launched, i.e. the construction of public lavatories near the town hall, the first of this kind to be built in Chicago. Three years after Chicago a second club was established in San Francisco and three further clubs were created in the year thereafter. In 1910 there were 16 clubs situated all over the United States, with over 1500 members.

The first congress was held in 1910 in Chicago and the 16 clubs met under the name of National Association of Rotary Clubs. Paul Harris was elected president; Chesley R. Perry, who had joined the Chicago club in 1908, was appointed secretary, charge he held until his retirement in 1942; Rufus Chapin was appointed treasurer, remaining in that position until his death in 1945.

It was in these initial years that the vision of service took form, especially since Arthur Frederick Sheldon joined the Chicago club. He firmly held that each profession should be considered as a means to serve society, and at the first Rotary congress, in 1910, proposed the motto “He Profits Most Who Serves his Fellows Best”. In the following year, another eminent early Rotary member, Benjamin Franklin Collins, stressed the importance of serving and proposed to organize the clubs on the basis of the principle “Service, Not Self”. These two sentences, modified to read “He Profits Most Who Serves Best” and “Service Above Self”, were readily accepted by all Rotarians and became the mottoes proudly figuring on their badges. However, 40 years had to pass before they were officially adopted by Rotary International at the congress of Detroit in 1950.

Paul Harris’ early efforts to create a club outside the United States succeeded, after a number of failures, with the creation of the Winnipeg Club in Canada in 1911. Thus Rotary became international.

The Rotary Foundation was created in 1917 by Arch Klumph, sixth president of R.I. In that same year the publication of The National Rotarian was launched, precursor of The Rotarian, also known as the official magazine of Rotary International. Later on, that same year, Paul Harris contacted the Bostonian Harvey Wheeler, owner of a cotton mill in England, with a view to setting up a club in London. Shortly thereafter the aforesaid Wheeler, with Arthur Frederic Sheldon and E. Sayer Smith, founded the clubs of London and Manchester. At the same time Paul Harris learned to his great surprise that a “Rotary” club already existed in Dublin, Ireland, founded in March 1911. The mystery was solved on learning that Stewart Morrow, a former Rotarian of San Francisco, had moved to Ireland and had founded a club in Dublin and one in Belfast. Paul Harris asked Morrow to continue along this road and in a few years clubs were established in Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) and in various locations in England.

Once the Atlantic crossed, Rotary expanded rapidly and, at the Duluth congress of 1912, its name was changed to International Association of Rotary Clubs, in its turn abbreviated in 1922 to Rotary International. The first president not from the United States was the Canadian E. Leslie Pidgeon, elected in 1917 at the congress of Atlanta. The first club in a non-anglophone country was created in 1916 in Havana, Cuba; it was dissolved in 1979. Rotary thus started to cross not only national frontiers but also language barriers. However, it acquired a really world-wide dimension in the nineteentwenties, when it expanded in continental Europe, Central- and South-America, Africa, Australia and Asia.

This expansion, resulting in its world-wide presence, proved and proves that its founding principles still have a vitality and attraction allowing it to overcome any difference of race, religion, language or nationality. The nineteentwenties were constructive, brilliant and full of challenges: in particular, 1926 was the memorable year in which the Rotary Club of London gave the rotarian movement one of its greatest contributions. During a Sunday stroll on the hills of Surrey two of its members formulated what was to be known as the “Aims and Objectives” projet. They proposed to channel all service activities along four main routes: internal action, actions of public interest, professional action and international action. The two Rotarians were Sydney W. Pascall, who was elected international president in 1931-32, and Vivian Carter, who at the time was secretary general of R.I.B.I., the association of Rotary Clubs in England and Ireland.

The new idea was amply discussed and submitted in 1927 to the R.I. Congress of Ostend, where it was adopted. Consequently, the four routes became an integral part of Rotary International’s aims and are still operational wherever a Rotary club exists.

Rotary International has been the forerunner of other great service associations, such as Kiwanis International, established in 1917, and Optimist International (1919). Similarly, following the Rotary model women’s service organizations were founded, such as Zonta International (1919).

Rotary has also laid the foundation for many important organizations of world-wide relevance, such as the International Society for Crippled Children, established in 1922 and now known as Rehabilitation International, and UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization); in this case the foundations were laid in the course of a Rotarian congress held in London in 1942 with the aim of examining the establishment of a vast system of cultural exchanges between countries.

The statistics on the expansion of Rotary world-wide are impressive, but numbers alone cannot describe the achievements attained through the four routes. When evaluating  the progress made thanks to the Rotary programme as described in this and in all other Rotarian sites, account must also be taken of the friendship, the improvement in the transaction of business and in the professions, the joy given to the lesser priviledged and the handicapped, the work with the young aimed at improving the principles of leadership, the incessant flow of activities for the benefit of fellow citizen, the thousands of schlarships and cultural exchanges, the many other projects implemented by the clubs, including the international ctivities of the Rotary Foundation. In fact, the pecularity of Rotary lies in its being like a mosaic, composed of many minute pieces differing in size, form and colour.

In his autobiography My road to Rotary, Paul Harris compares the power of Rotary to a majestic river: “The great river is the sum total of the contribution of hundreds, or even thousands of rivulets from the surrounding hills and mountains, eager to flow into it. To this we can compare the expansion of Rotary. It has become great thanks to the devotion and contribution of thousands of Rotarians of many countries”.

World-wide there are more than 1.208.000 Rotarians, members of approximately 32.554 clubs grouped in 530 Districts present in more than 168 countries. Its prestige and tradition, and the influence emanating from the members and the leaders of the clubs are such that it is the only non-governmental body that has its own representative on the Council of the United Nations. And it all began with a meeting of four people about a century ago.