A Brief Look at the Beginnings of Rotary International

Paul Harris once wrote, “High though the mountains may be, a boy’s spirit is still higher.” This thought, which Paul wrote during the autumn years of his life, reflects his steadfast philosophy that no goal is beyond reach.

With this in mind, one better understands the founder of Rotary, for Paul Harris had the gift of retaining throughout his life a boy’s spirit. He was an innovator, a man ahead of his time, and from his facile mind and lonely heart sprang an idea, which today unites men and women of all races and beliefs in a common bond, the fellowship of Rotary.

Paul was born in Racine, Wisconsin, U.S.A., on 19 April 1868. As a three-year-old lad he was taken to Wallingford, Vermont, where he grew up under the love and care of his paternal grandparents. In the mellow Green Mountains amid the uncomplicated, religiously oriented life of New England, in the paths along his “Valley,” young Paul began his study of good in all things. It was there, perhaps, that the seeds of Rotary were planted in his mind.

In his many reminiscences, set forth in My Road to Rotary published after his death, in 1947, he wrote of his arrival at Wallingford. The father, after a business failure in Racine, had brought his two boys, Paul and Cecil (the latter then five) to live with their grand-parents, 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 wrote “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 winter and to enjoy the beauty of its autumn and summer. 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 he roamed the countryside in the neighbourhood of Elfin Lake with nearby Black Mountain always an adventuresome challenge. They also believed in the value of an education, and made it possible for Paul to attend grade and high school.

He had entered Princeton University, he was then about 18, 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 honourably 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, honour, truth, sincerity; love—these are the homely virtues characteristic of good, old-fashioned homes:’ 

The early 1900s found Paul in Chicago, Illinois, his university life and five years of travel behind him, the door to his law office open. In this crowded city he was surrounded with people, yet all were strangers and he felt alone. That there might be other young businessmen experiencing this same kind of loneliness seemed logical, and from this thought grew an idea that Paul considered for several years. “In the life of great movements:’ he wrote, “it is necessary that one man who has faith can walk alone for a time:’

Chicago was then still something of a pioneer town. It was assimilating every level of society that was filtering westward. There was much opportunity and much corruption. 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 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 favourable 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 Room 711 in Chicago’s Unity Building, which still stands at 127 North Dearborn Street, across from what is now the Civic Centre with a huge Picasso sculpture on the plaza. It was a typical business office of the time—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 a miner’s engineering chart on the wall.

This 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 at 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 remarked that they had just eaten an excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant, Madame Gaul’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.

Paul’s idea 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. But surely they never dreamed that the idea set in motion within the drab walls of this turn-of-the-century Chicago office would some day capture the minds of men and women 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 (Rotary/One) came into existence.

As with all things human, there were mixed objectives 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 be having some thought for the welfare of the other.”

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.

  • Belgium – Rotary’s first convention in continental Europe was held in Oostende in 1927. It included this parade attended by Belgium’s King Albert 1, who later addressed the convention.