President Hannah's April Message
This month, we celebrate the life of Rotary founder Paul Harris, who was born on April 19, 1868 in Racine, Wisconsin. In 1896, Harris settled in Chicago and opened a law practice. In 1905, at age 37, Harris organized the first Rotary Club with three local businessmen.
In February 1907, Harris was elected the third president of the Rotary Club of Chicago. By 1910, Rotary had expanded to several other major U.S. cities and had formed the National Association of Rotary Clubs (now Rotary International). Harris was unanimously elected as its president. By the time of Harris's death, Rotary International had grown to more than 200,000 members in 75 countries. Today, there are about 1.2 million members worldwide.
Through learning more about Rotary’s visionary founder, I’ve come to better appreciate how his influence carries on to the organization’s mission today. Here are five things I’ve learned about him that are still relevant to Rotary today.
  1. Harris understood the importance of fellowship and friendship
When Harris moved to the big city of Chicago, he missed the camaraderie he had in the small town where he grew up in Vermont. After seeing how friendly his fellow attorney Bob Frank was with shopkeepers on Chicago’s North Side, he was inspired to get people together to build friendships. Rotary has always been about connection and community.
“The foundation upon which Rotary is built is friendship; on no less firm foundation could it have stood.” - Paul Harris
  1. Harris realized that Rotary needed a greater purpose.
When Harris was elected as third president of the Chicago Rotary Club in 1907, the club initiated its first public service project, the construction of public toilets in Chicago. The goal was to improve sanitation while also keeping people downtown longer to shop, improving business. This caught the attention of local public leaders, causing the head of the Y.M.C.A to say, “The Rotary Club of Chicago has now shown reason for its existence.”
“Whatever Rotary may mean to us, to the world it will be known by the results it achieves." - Paul Harris
  1. Harris knew Rotary was a gift to be shared widely
When Harris worked to expand Rotary beyond Chicago, some club members resisted, not wanting to take on the additional financial burden. But Harris persisted and successfully expanded the organization.
"The club grew by leaps and bounds, and representatives of different nationalities, religions, and political faiths came in.” - Paul Harris
  1. Harris recognized that organizations need to evolve to stay relevant.
Paul Harris traveled extensively during the 1920s and 1930s, often planting trees to symbolize goodwill and friendship. He considered the tree plantings experiments, to some degree, and compared them to “all things new to Rotary.” Reflecting on a tree planting in Chile, he wrote:
“It is well that there is nothing in Rotary so sacred that it cannot be set aside in favor of things better.” - Paul Harris
  1. Harris experienced the transformational power of service
Before his death, he made it known that he preferred contributions to The Rotary Foundation in lieu of flowers because he knew how those funds could improve lives and change the world.
“Rotary changes us and those we serve. I believe we can change the world one life at a time.” - Paul Harris