On February 23, 1905, Paul Harris, Gustavus Loehr, Silvester Schiele and Hiram Shorey gathered at Loehr’s office in Room 711 of the Unity Building in downtown Chicago. This was the first Rotary Club meeting. They decided to call the new club “Rotary” after the practice of rotating meeting locations.
Paul Harris was born in Wisconsin but was raised in Vermont. After attending Princeton, the University of Vermont and the University of Iowa, Harris settled in Chicago where he lived until his death in 1947. He began a law practice in 1896, and established the first Rotary club "in fellowship and friendship" with three business associates. His initial goal was to create a club of professional and businessmen, but he soon realized that Rotary needed a greater purpose. While he served as President of his club, it initiated its first public service project - constructing public toilets in Chicago. This step transformed Rotary into the world's first service club. When Harris died in 1947, more than 300,000 Rotarians mourned. An outpouring of contributions to the Rotary Foundation created the Paul Harris Memorial Fund, which continues to support the Rotary Foundation today.
Within a year of its creation, the Chicago Rotary Club became so large it became necessary to adopt the now-common practice of a regular meeting place! The next four Rotary clubs were formed in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The National Association of Rotary Clubs in America was formed in 1910. The first international Rotary club was chartered in Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada in 1912 - officially making Rotary an international service organization. The name was then changed to "The International Association of Rotary Clubs."
The Rotary clubs of London and Dublin were also chartered in 1912, moving Rotary outside the North American continent. In 1922, the name was changed to Rotary International, and by 1925, there were over 2,100 clubs worldwide with over 110,000 members.
From 1905 until the 1980s, women were not allowed membership in Rotary clubs. They were allowed in "Inner Wheel" clubs - created by some clubs for spouses of Rotarians. There were many service organizations for women in the United States when Rotary was formed, so there wasn't much of a push to include women in Rotary. Women did play a role, however. Paul Harris' wife made quite a few speeches and it was noted in 1963 that including wives in club activities had "helped to break down female seclusion in some countries."
The gender equity issue came to the forefront, however, in 1976, when the Rotary Club of Duarte in California admitted three women as members. When the club refused to remove them, Rotary International revoked the club's charter. The club filed suit in California, claiming that Rotary rules discriminated based on gender, which violated California's Civil Rights Act. The court battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, which ruled FOR the Rotary Club of Duarte. That club elected its first female president, Sylvia Whitlock, that same year. Since 1987, most clubs around the world have opted to include women as members. Women currently account for over 15% of international Rotary membership (22% in North America) and many women serve as club presidents, district governors, and even RI directors.
In 1921, Rotary formally considered the issue of racial restriction in membership and determined that the organization could not allow restrictions along racial lines as the organization grew. Racial restrictions were disallowed seven years after Rotary was established. Nonracialism was included in the terms of the standard constitution in 1922, which was adopted by all member clubs. Rotary has also become open to LGBTQ membership in the last decade or so. Rotary clubs are challenged annually to recruit members that reflect the demographic makeup of their communities - by gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Tolerance is one of the most important virtues in the Rotary spirit. Founder Paul Harris spoke on the subject of tolerance in many speeches and talks during his tenure in Rotary. He once said, "Rotarians respect each other's opinions and are tolerant and friendly at all times. Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and Buddists break bread together in Rotary." This mantra in the early years of Rotary led to Rotary International adopting the following statement in 1933: "Rotarians in all countries should recognize these facts (differences), and there should be a thoughtful avoidance of criticism of the laws and customs of one country by the Rotarians of another country." Tolerance is key to understanding different peoples and nations.
In 1915, Rotary was almost bankrupt. The President, Frank Mulholland, realized the seriousness and urgency or the situation, and came up with the simple idea of asking each Rotarian to contribute $1.00. This raised a sizeable amount of money for the organization and was quite successful. Thus the concept of each Rotarian paying dues to the international organization was born. And Rotary has not been in bad shape financially ever since!
During his term as President of Rotary International in 1957-1958, Charles Tennent introduced the concept of an "annual theme." His theme was "Enlist - Extend - Explore" and that theme colored his goals for the entire year in every facet of Rotarian life. Since Tennent's inaugural theme, every RI President has introduced a theme for his year. Some examples have included:
2012-2013: "Peace Through Service"
2013-2014: "Engage Rotary, Change Lives"
2014-2015: "Light Up Rotary"
2015-2016: "Be a Gift to the World"
2016-2017: "Rotary Serving Humanity"
2017-2018: "Making a Difference"
2018-2019: "Be the Inspiration"
2019-2020: "Rotary Connects the World"
2020-2021: "Rotary Opens Opportunities"
There are so many characteristics of a Rotary club, as well as the activities of over a million Rotarians! There are service ideals, the international focus of being worldwide, fellowship, the focus on professional ethics and respect for diverse vocations, development of goodwill and world understanding, concern for others, passion for community improvement and a true belief that neighbors can lift neighbors out of tragedy or poverty.
However, if you are looking for a one-sentence definition that encapsulates the ideals of Rotary, you need look no further than that created by the 1976 Rotary PR Committee at Rotary International:
"Rotary is an organization of business and professional persons united worldwide who provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and help build goodwill and peace in the world."
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