Chicago, in the early 1900’s, was still a pioneer town. It was assimilating every level of society that was filtering westward. Corruption, if not accepted with grace, was accepted with resignation. Respectable businessmen often wondered if they could survive the circumstances surrounding them.
A campaign for civic improvement, however, was quietly under way, and this presaged a fierce battle for righteousness in which businessmen were to shed their cloaks of complacency and dig into the fight to give their city a right sense of direction. It is conceivable that Rotary might have been born under sunnier skies in a climate more equable, but there are many who contend that there could have been no more favorable birthplace for Rotary than in paradoxical Chicago. The motto, “I Will,” was not only engraved on Chicago’s municipal shield, it was also emblazoned upon the hearts of the farseeing men and women of this Midwestern “melting pot.”
The first Rotary meeting was held in a typical business office—a small room, not too well lighted, with a desk and three or four uncomfortable chairs, a coat rack in the corner, one or two pictures and an engineering chart on the wall.
It was the office of Gus Loehr, a mining engineer, and Gus had just welcomed a visitor—a merchant tailor named Hiram Shorey. Hiram took one of the straight-backed chairs, and he and Gus began to talk—first, casual conversation about the usual topics, but their talk soon drifted to the idea which a lawyer-friend had been discussing for several months. The lawyer’s name was Paul Harris, and he had an idea about a new kind of club. They would discuss it again tonight, for Gus and Hiram were waiting for two more visitors—Silvester Schiele, a coal dealer, and Paul Harris himself.
Presently, these two men entered the room. They re-marked that they had just eaten an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant, Madame Galli’s. They talked about one or two amusing experiences, and then Paul began to unfold his idea for a new club. He explained that it would be a good thing if a group of businessmen could get together periodically to get better acquainted. Thus Rotary was born on 23 February, 1905.
From the facile brain and lonely heart of Paul Harris an idea had come—an idea which stimulated the imagination of the three men who gathered around him. This idea, conceived as most great ideas—a tiny fragment of genius —challenged these men to dream a small dream even on that February evening. They dared not dream, however, that the idea set in motion within the drab walls of this Chicago office would some day enlist the minds of men around the world.
Within a few days other friends and acquaintances had been drawn into the circle of Gus Loehr, Hiram Shorey, Silvester Schiele, and Paul Harris. The first meetings were informal, but basic rules were adopted, and gradually the Rotary Club of Chicago came into existence.
As with all human things, there were mixed objectives and ideas in this first Rotary group. There was spirited discussion, with the admitted hope that such a grouping would help the members get new business. Meetings, they decided, were to be held in rotation at members’ places of business; hence the name “Rotary.” To broaden acquaintance and perhaps help obtain more business, it was agreed that only one representative of each business or profession would be admitted. Keenly aware of the bitter business rivalry of their time, they agreed that in this way there might be less chance of dissension within the new club.
There were these business aspects in the early days of Rotary, but they also carried the germ of the idea that would lead the fledgling group into the path of service. Schiele put it this way: “Each of us would he having some thought for the welfare of the other fellow.” It was only a step from the business welfare of the fellow member to the social welfare of the community, a step that was first taken in 1907 when the new club led a campaign to install public comfort stations in Chicago’s city hall—its first service project. The course of this first Rotary club was firmly set.
A description of those early members of the first years further indicates the slant of the sail. Harris said of them: ‘”They were friendly and congenial, and each represented a recognized and honorable vocation different from that of the others. They had been selected without regard to religious, racial or political differences. The group included members of American, German, Swedish, and Irish ancestry, and representatives of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths, all products of the American melting pot, and, in that respect, fitting progenitors of the international order which they were to bring into being.”
Those two qualities—the premise of agreement and the unquestioning acceptance of a man as a man instead of as a member of a specific group—became the flesh and blood of Rotary history.
Everyone who has come to Rotary has brought some special talent, some particular ability, or some new idea. Perhaps in individual circumstances these have not always been utilized, but in others thev have left a lasting imprint. The case of the “number 5 Rotarian,” a printer named Harry Ruggles who joined immediately after the first meeting, is pertinent. Musically inclined, he is credited with introducing one of the most prominent characteristics of Rotary fellowship, club singing. Many clubs, it is true, do not have a brief song period at the beginning of their meetings; on the other hand, a majority feel that such a period relaxes men tensed up by the business day, and they sing with a will.
After the new club in Chicago had held a few meetings, the members began discussing an appropriate emblem, one that would symbolize the developing meaning of their organization. One member submitted a design of a locomotive drive wheel with a counterweight and the word “Rotary Club” on the connecting rod. Another presented a design of a buggy wheel, and this was adopted. He afterwards added “dust” to portray the idea of motion—but put the dust both before and after the wheel so it appeared to be rolling on the clouds. Later a streamer carrying the words “Rotary Club” was added to this design.
All the early emblems varied considerably, although most used the wheel in one way or another. Differing elements often were superimposed, some symbolic of the club or region, others of a characteristic product. The 1912 convention adopted the gear wheel as the basic design, and subsequently there were minor changes until, in 1922, authority was given to “create, adopt, and preserve” an emblem. Accordingly, the present gear wheel with 24 cogs, six spokes, and a keyway was adopted.
No official meaning attaches to the design. It simply is a device worn to proclaim the wearer’s identity with Rotary. But in the deeper sense, the wheel carries significant meaning. Modern society could not exist without all the many forms of gear wheels; they are the mechanisms of driving force, of transmitting power, of work. The choice of it by the early Rotarians was significant, for it symbolized the aspirations they held for their budding organization.
Those aspirations were developed further when, in 1908, another event occurred to exemplify the influence of a man on an organization. Rotary history is replete with such instances, right from the very start. And one of the first came in 1908, when Ruggles introduced a prospective member to the Chicago club—an enterprising young man from the staff of the Chicago public library, a night school teacher, and a former officer in the United States Army during the Spanish-American war. His name was Chesley R. Perry.
The case of “Ches” Perry was of the pattern. He embraced Rotary cautiously, then wholeheartedly, and he contributed greatly. At the first national convention, in 1910, Harris was elected president and Perry the first secretary, a post he held through various changes in nomenclature and organizational developments—many of which bore his unmistakable stamp—until his retirement in 1942 at the age of 70. A high moment of his career came at the 1954 international convention in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., when the delegates assembled demonstrated their deep affection by offering him the post of secretary emeritus. He declined with evident emotion in order that he might remain “just one of the members” of his Rotary club.
Of this man, who died in February, 1960, Paul Harris said, “If I can in truth be called the architect, Ches can with equal truth be called the builder of Rotary International,” a testimony untarnished by the years. He created, for example, the secretariat, the central servicing organization of Rotary; he initiated publication of the magazine which plays so large a part in Rotary; the list of his contributions touches virtually every facet.
Rotary, of course, grew as it developed its patterns. The second club was formed in San Francisco, California, U.S.A., a long jump from Chicago, in 1908. It was followed early the next year by a club across the bay in Oakland, and by August, 1910, there were 16 clubs dotted across the United States. They called the first convention in August, 1910, in Chicago to organize “The National Association of Rotary Clubs.” Approximately 1500 members attended. Two years later at Duluth, Minnesota, U.S.A., 50 clubs were represented and with the presence of delegates from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the organization had become international.
In addition to growing in numbers Rotarians began to contribute significantly to the intangible world of human relations, where occurs the fascinating parade of men of vision moving upward in defining their ideals. At the Buffalo convention in 1913 the stage was set for consideration of a “Rotary Code of Ethics.” President Russell F. Greiner appointed a committee to discuss the matter; one member was from Sioux City, Iowa, U.S.A., and he sought the help of members of his club. Most of the work was done in Pullman cars traveling to the next convention in Houston, but these men drafted the first copy of a ‘”code of trade ethics.”
This was to have important repercussions. The code passed through the crucibles of both the Houston and San Francisco conventions; its adoption marked the definite turning point in Rotary from the “business reciprocity” idea of the first few years to the principle of service to and thoughtfulness of others. The code was widely used for many years.
It also led to another development. At the Houston convention amid a great deal of talk as to “just where Rotary is going,” a Philadelphian named Guy Gundaker, who later was R. I. president, was appointed to head a special committee charged with studying Rotary principles and objectives. Ultimately, Gundaker produced a small book, a combination of four earlier pamphlets, under the title, A Talking Knowledge of Rotary. Besides being the birth of Rotary program literature, it was the first definite formulation of principles and objectives.
From this little book grew a widespread development of codes of ethics for various non-Rotary organizations. This began in 1922 when Rotarian Gundaker, a restaurateur, was asked by his trade association, the American Restaurant Association, to draft a code for it. When adopted by the Association, this code became the model for many other trade and professional groups—not only in the United States but also in other countries as well.
Rotary crossed the boundary between Canada and the United States in 1910 and in 1911 crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Ireland and Great Britain; thus, the term “National” was no longer appropriate. In 1912 the organization became the “International Association of Rotary Clubs.” By 1921 the 1,000th club had been chartered (York, England) and the Rotary banner had been planted firmly in such places as Hawaii, the Philippines, China, Japan, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
The first international convention to be held outside the United States was held in 1921 at Edinburgh, Scotland. The Rotarians made quite an impression on the Scots as they landed singing “I’m Just A Little Prairie Flower.” But there was also a seriousness about the delegates in session, and there were signs of concern about principles and an emergent idealism. A past president put it into words when he told the convention, “In the past, missions have been either political or commercial. We come as neither. We come as men”
The Edinburgh convention was important to Rotary in many ways. Delegates came to the convention keenly aware of personal membership in an organization which was big —and getting bigger every day. There were trends which needed examining—trends which called for resolution if the organization were to continue to grow. Consideration needed to be given to the structure of the member clubs and of the International Association itself.
One of the most important conclusions reached by the convention was that there should be a new standard club constitution—not so rigid as to inhibit club autonomy, but sufficiently uniform as to gather up the fundamentals in an acceptable form. A committee should be appointed, the convention agreed, to structure such a document; in addition, several principles were approved for guiding such a committee.
A 31-member committee composed of one from each of the 25 districts, two from the clubs in Great Britain and Ireland, and four appointed by the international president came into being to implement the guiding principles. As the chairman put it: “Our problem was not to reorganize a failing or bankrupt institution. The reason we were called together . . . was because of the . . . tremendous growth of Rotary. (We were dealing) with the problem of enabling a great success to be more successful, if possible.”
The committee met for seven successive days in Chicago, presenting suggestions, harmonizing points of view, and finally producing the draft of a “working document.” A “polishing” committee took over, meeting four days in New York, three in Chicago, and two in Buffalo—again polishing and condensing. The final document was presented to the 1922 convention in Los Angeles, where it was approved to become the basic structure of Rotary and of Rotary clubs.
In essence, the new document gave official form to what had become widespread practice. The name was changed to the simple one of today—”Rotary International.” The committee structure was simplified, and the convention urged all clubs to appoint a classifications committee— testimony to the high importance attached to this subject. By resolution, the convention set up a standard that a classification must represent 60 per cent or more of its holder’s business or professional activity.
The 1922 convention also witnessed the refinement of the “objects” of Rotary. The early versions had emphasized the “business motives” but the gradual evolvement of goals reflected concerns common to a new organization; e.g., in 1910 the first object was “to extend and develop Rotary principles by the organization of affiliating Rotary clubs throughout America.” The 1912 convention talked about “standardizing” Rotary principles, and the first model constitution and by-laws for a Rotary club was approved, with five objects covering such things as promoting the worthiness of all legitimate occupations, encouragement of high ethical standards, increasing efficiency by exchanging ideas, promoting acquaintance, and quickening the interest of each member in the public welfare and civic development.
In 1915 a sixth object was added to the club objects, “to stimulate the desire of each member to be of service to his fellow men and society in general.” There were slight differences between the objects of the international organization and those suggested for the Rotary club until 1922, when the same objects were established. There were six objects until 1935 when the Mexico City Convention adopted four objects. In 1951 the convention agreed that Rotary had only one object with four parts.
These parts, then, became the “four avenues of service”: club, vocational, community, and international respectively.
The object and its four avenues are fundamental in Rotary, the club administration being organized around them, but almost as fundamental is Rotary’s dual motto, “service above self—he profits most who serves best.” It was in 1910 at the closing banquet of the first convention at which the existing sixteen clubs were federated into the National Association that a Chicago Rotarian, Arthur F. Sheldon, made reference in a speech to the businessman of conscience in terms that “he profits most who serves his fellows best.”
The following year at the convention in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., he again used the phrase, in slightly altered form—this time, “he profits most who serves best.” The delegates liked it so much that it was picked up and added as the last paragraph of the “Rotary platform” which that convention adopted.
Another businessman, Frank Collins, president of the newly organized Rotary Club of Minneapolis, in an impromptu speech at the second convention in 1911 used the phrase “Service, not Self.” It also became a popular expression and was later adapted to “service above self.” Within a few years both phrases had become the unofficial slogans of Rotary, until eventually made official by convention action in 1950.
Beginning in a small office on Dearborn Street in Chicago, Rotary spread around the world in the first fifty years. As it spread geographically and the number of clubs increased, basic concepts were created which became a part of the pattern. Ever evolving, these concepts were made manifest in diverse ways—some in the official documents, others in the codes and mottoes, still others in the creative leadership which has characterized Rotary’s history.
Rotary’s Golden Anniversary Convention in 1955 was held in Chicago. The actual anniversary memorializations began on 23 February culminating with the pageantry of the convention on 29 May-2 June, but the outstanding element was not the convention, fine as it was. It was the way in which clubs and Rotarians throughout the world seized the opportunity for re-dedicating themselves to the ideal of service. Countless numbers of “golden anniversary” projects were initiated, some for completion within the anniversary period, others extending far into the future; some, as a matter of fact, became permanent activities, a perpetual commemoration. One of the outstanding developments of Rotary history, The Rotary Foundation, provided the central theme of a motion picture, “The Great Adventure,” and called attention far and wide to Rotary activity.
A souvenir book, Rotary: Fifty Years of Service, told a fascinating story of Rotary development against the panorama of the half century. The Rotarian magazine printed a special edition; 27 nations issued commemorative postage stamps, an event unprecedented for a non-governmental organization and high testimony to the value the world has come to place on Rotary.
The Rotarians and their families who returned to the international convention in 1955 also dedicated a new world headquarters building—the story of which deserves more than passing mention. As early as 1920, President Albert S. Adams in his address to the Atlantic City convention envisioned the day when Rotary would have its own home.
“Some day I hope to see our headquarters in a beautiful building of our own,” he said. “A building that will typify in its architecture the spirit of Rotary … In that building I would like to see the most perfect business office in the world—a model for all men to study, with every comfort and convenience for the health and contentment of our employees … It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? But it can be done.”
During the intervening years there were spasmodic efforts to arouse interest, and there was considerable study by Rotary committees. At the Minneapolis convention in 1928 the board of directors was authorized “to acquire a suitable site and/or building in the City of Chicago” as a permanent Rotary headquarters. This action resulted in the appointment of a building committee. Prospective sites were examined and floor space was estimated. On two occasions, papers were drawn and ready for signing. Then came the depression years, and the offer of a lease with considerably reduced rent—an offer so attractive that it was accepted.
The idea of a headquarters building was only temporarily laid aside, however; several important events taking place between 1941 and 1951 demonstrated that the idea was not to be forgotten. The convention at Chicago, in 1944, took action removing the restriction that the headquarters must be located in the city of Chicago. Following this action, proposals were received from other cities.
In 1951, the board of directors received a recommendation from the finance committee to the effect that serious consideration should be given to the advantages afforded by a new headquarters building, in view of the impending expiration of the current office lease. Accordingly, President Frank E. Spain appointed a special committee to investigate possible sites in several cities, among them an unimproved corner location in Evanston, a northern suburb of Chicago. An option was secured on this property, and this action was sustained by the Mexico City convention which “confirmed, endorsed, and ratified the action taken, as well as any and all relevant actions taken subsequently.”
And thus, for the first time since President Adams “dreamed a dream” 30 years before, the vision of Rotary in its own home began to materialize into an actuality. In 1952-53, the board authorized the appointment of a headquarters committee to follow through on all matters relating to the building of a Rotary headquarters—to acquire the site under option and “to employ architects to prepare detailed plans and specifications.”
On a bright, sunny afternoon in May, 1953, the then president of Rotary International, H. J. Brunnier, turned the first symbolic shovelful of earth, and immediately thereafter construction work began. Rapid progress was made. As, the cornerstone was eased into place on 16 May, 1954, attention was called to the Rotary motto carved on its surface: “Service Above Self—He Profits Most Who Serves Best.” Within the copper lined receptacle inside the cornerstone, repose historic Rotary documents and other mementos, including recordings made by Paul Harris during his latter years. Rotary’s founder had died suddenly on 27 January, 1947—seven years before the building was completed.
In his many reminiscences, set forth in My Road To Rotary, published after his death, he wrote of his arrival at the age of three at Wallingford, Vermont. The father, after a business failure in Racine, Wisconsin, had brought his two boys, Paul and Cecil (the latter then five) to live with their grandparents, Howard and Pamela Harris. The three had arrived late at night by train and were met by Grandfather Harris.
“Grandfather, father, Cecil, and I,” Paul related, “turned north at the first corner, crossed the road, and grandfather opened a gate and we entered a yard. As we approached the side veranda of a comfortable-looking house, a door opened and a dark-eyed elderly lady stepped out into the darkness holding a kerosene lamp above her head and peering out into the night. She was father’s mother and was destined to be mine as well.”
For nearly eighteen years, Paul was to endure the rigors of the New England winters and to enjoy the beauty of its summers; he was to learn the ways of prudence and frugality, and always he was to be surrounded with the abiding love of his grandparents.
This persevering, hard working, and thrifty New England couple believed that a boy should have plenty of sunshine and space in which to play. So, as a boy, he roamed the countryside in the neighborhood of Elfin Lake, with nearby Black Mountain always an adventuresome challenge. They also believed in the value of an education; they made it possible for Paul to attend grade and high school.
He had entered Princeton University—he was then about eighteen—when he received word of his grandfather’s death; and it was not long afterward that he returned for a short visit to Wallingford. Paul related with deep feeling a conversation with his grandmother during one of their frequent walks together in the orchard at sunset:
“Paul, I wonder at times if you realize how much you meant to Pa. At times, it used to seem to him that his life had been a failure . . . And then you came to us quite providentially and Pa fastened all his hopes on you. Paul, you must not fail him. Work hard and live honorably for your grandfather’s sake.”
As Paul later looked back over a life of three-score and ten years—a life of excitement, adventure, and achievement, all in the fullest measure, he wrote:
“When one looks back over a long period of years, much which once seemed important fades into insignificance, while other things grow into such commanding importance that one may in truth say, ‘Nothing else matters.’ Sacrifice, devotion, honor, truth, sincerity, love—these are the homely virtues characteristic of good, old-fashioned homes.”