Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Paul Harris and Rotary

“Whatever Rotary may mean to us, to the world it will be known by the results it achieves.” 

These are the words of Paul Harris, the man who founded Rotary International more than 100 years ago and whose birthday Rotarians - across the globe - celebrate today.

Harris was born on April 19, 1858 in Racine, Wisconsin, the second child of George and Cornelia Harris. In his youth, he was known as a prankster and a less-than-serious student. He attended the University of Vermont and Princeton before he finally settled in at the University of iowa, where he earned a degree in law in 1891.

For the next five years, Harris worked odd jobs: for a newspaper as a reporter and salesman, on fruit farms, as an actor and cowboy, and on cattle ships that traveled to Europe.

Often I have thought about Harris' early years, especially the job he had as a newspaper reporter (which runs thru my life story too) and his travels throughout Europe. (Perhaps he too possessed a passion for travel and adventure?)

In 1896, Harris moved to the Beverly (really?) neighborhood of Chicago; he lived there for the rest of his life. 

A few years after establishing his law practice in the main business district of Chicago, Harris began to consider the benefits of forming a social organization for local professionals. Thus, in 1905, Harris organized the first Rotary Club "in fellowship and friendship" with three clients and local businessmen. Rotary’s name came from the group’s early practice of rotating meetings among the offices of each member.

Soon, Harris realized Rotary needed a greater purpose. 
In 1907, the club initiated its first public service project - the construction of public toilets in Chicago. This step transformed the small Rotary Club into the world's first service club. Its motto - Service Above Self - became its strong foundation.

Harris had great ambitions for Rotary's growth, and very early in the organization's history new clubs were started - first on the west coast and then all over the United States and in Europe.

By 1910, there were 15 new clubs in major cities. That August, the existing 16 Rotary Clubs held a national convention in Chicago. There they unanimously chose to unify as the National Association of Rotary Clubs. Eventually, the organization became the International Association of Rotary Clubs, helping to realize Harris' dream worldwide.

By the time of Harris' death in 1947, Rotary International had grown to more than 200,000 members in 75 countries. While the club provides a venue for both business and social networking, the primary focus is on local and international service projects. Currently, there are approximately 1.2 million members worldwide.

As I take these moments to acknowledge the birthday of Paul Harris today, I can't help but think about those words he said so long ago:

Whatever Rotary may mean to us, to the world it will be known by the results it achieves.” 

He could not have known how prophetic and immortal his words would become!

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