James H. Roth
“Don Jim” – The Man
Don Jim lived a colorful life.
He had scores of stories to tell, starting with his encounter with Pancho Villa in Nogales.
His travels, always carrying gold coins to exchange for local currency.
His mornings at the hotels in Brazil, where he always enjoyed the fruit loaded breakfasts.
His meetings with local leaders and dignitaries.
His thoughts, as he was moving around South America.
He certainly loved to share his memories.
He said Spain’s King Alphonse XIII was a great admirer of Rotary, and it was at the king’s request that he was sent to Spain and Portugal to organize new Rotary Clubs.
He also tells why he resigned the diplomatic service to work for Rotary: “I thought I could (do) more for the understanding of America”.
He never married: “I could never find a woman who liked me enough”, he said.
He loved his mother dearly, and while living in the old family house he slept in his mother’s bed; “I was born here, and I would to die here, in this bed” he expressed once.
In his will he asks to be buried with his mother’s ring, which had worn since her death.
Among his recollections, a letter he wrote from Brazil in 1941: “What a wealth of experience I have for the years when I may be alone in life, thinking of the past, and awaiting the calling down of the curtain on the stage of life”.
Of his living in the old house: “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I am the last of the line. Here I am among my mementos.”
Raul Villafañe was a charter member of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, Argentina. He wrote about his first encounter with Don Jim and Rotary. It was 1938, and he describes the first meeting where Don Jim explained Rotary to the group that had gathered.
Raul tells how the group left the meeting with skeptical feelings, and somehow disappointed. That same day, very late at night, they received an urgent message: Don Jim was suffering cardiac problems and needed medical attention. Some of those who had met him, ran to the hospital and waited anxiously until he recovered. Then, looking at the men surrounding him, Don Jim told them of his beloved home, his native Ventura and went on to again explain the principles of Rotary. This simple act converted all of them: if this man believed in Rotary so strongly, when his own life was in danger, it had to be a worthy cause.
Thus, the Rotary Club of San Francisco was born.
James H. Roth’s appearance was impeccable. A rather short man, always wearing his black suite, even at home, he came out as a stereotype diplomat: black, shiny shoes, white shirt, dark tie, and when going out in winter, his black overcoat, white silk scarf and on his head, the inseparable Homburg hat.
Julio Sanchez Viamonte, president of the Rotary Club of La Plata, Argentina, in 1930, described Don Jim this way: “He looked like a gentle man, with almost a bishop-like quality, a true Rotary missionary, unselfish and altruist, tactful in dealing with people; his face reflected kindness, gallant disposition, and high moral standards . . . when he entered the room, his presence was felt”.
I had the privilege of meeting him Christmas of 1964. Some common friends who came to visit us at home brought him along. To tell the truth, the previous description was very accurate, and he made a profound impression on my wife and me.
In the following years, until his death, he spent Christmas with us. Since he did not drive nor had a car, we had to pick him up at his house. Usually it was very cold at night, but he was ready when we arrived; all he had to do was get his overcoat, his hat and his cane, and we were on our way. Top left is Jorge Arman
He was a very meticulous man, and he would remove his hat, his scarf, his overcoat and give those to us for “safekeeping”. At dinner, he would remove a small box from his vest pocket and open it, exposing a dozen or so of colored pills or tablets. Very carefully he would extract one by one the ones he was supposed to take at that time, count them and verify the content of the box. Only then was he ready to eat.
Don Jim had heart problems; he had them for many years, but that did not prevent him to run his crusade for Rotary.
He took good care of himself, usually getting up very early in the morning, and enjoying breakfast.
He never rushed or showed impatience, and those qualities maybe allowed him to live for many years and do everything he wanted.
He lived in a small house, the same one his parents built in 1875. He felt comfortable there. There was a room in the house where he kept all the mementos he had collected during his active days.
Entering that room was like entering a museum. There were shelves with all imaginable objects given to him by Rotary Clubs and Rotarians, from silver plates to medals to souvenirs. The walls were covered with pictures showing him side by side with heads of state, most of them autographed, significant events in his life as a Special Commissioner, parchments, certificates, honors, diplomas, and so on.
When I tried to persuade him to donate his collection to the Ventura County Historical Society, he always responded: “I enjoyed my days in Brasil more than anything else; I want to donate this (what was in the room) to the Sao Paulo Rotary Club”. Which he did in his last will.
He was a very knowledgeable Rotarian, and we spent time talking about Rotary in general and Rotary in Latin America in particular.
He was a man to remember.