Service Above Self

Promotional Postcard for the 1910 Rotary Convention. 
Photo from the Rotary Club of Chicago Archives. 
While it is true that over the past year there haven’t been many in-person luncheons or other meetings, it is also probably true that there isn’t a single member of the Illinois General Assembly who has not given a speech in front of a local Rotary club. These groups of local business and civic leaders have been formed in practically every city and town in America, but the very first Rotary club was founded right here in Illinois in 1905.

An attorney named Paul Harris had come to Chicago from Vermont in 1896. On a walk around the North Side after dinner with his friend Bob Frank, also a local attorney, he noticed how well Frank seemed to know the proprietors of the businesses along their route. In the largest city in the Midwest, he was witnessing the kind of camaraderie that characterized his native small town in Vermont.

“The thought persisted that I was experiencing only what had happened to hundreds, perhaps thousands of others in the great city. I was sure that there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago,” he would later recall. “Why not bring them together? If others were longing for fellowship as I was, something would come of it.”

Harris believed that professionals in different businesses could learn much from each other, sharing their ideas and experiences to lead to an overall improvement in the business climate and in their communities as a whole. The club could also be a force for good works in the community, bringing together many local leaders in support of humanitarian goals.

Photo from the Rotary Club of Chicago Archives. 
He put his idea into action on February 23, 1905, and convened a meeting in the North Dearborn Street office of businessman Gustavus Loehr. There were four attendees in total. Harris’ cohorts found his idea of a businessmen’s service club to be an attractive one, and resolved to meet again in a couple of weeks to discuss the matter further. They would also seek out other like-minded businessmen to join the effort.

Because the venue for each of the first meetings rotated among the members’ offices, the group soon coined the term “rotary” to name their new organization. It stuck.

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

The idea of businesses and civic leaders joining together over a meal for professional development and friendship (something future generations would call “networking”) soon caught on nationwide. In 1910 there were 16 Rotary clubs in the nation’s major cities, with more being formed every year.

That year the first national convention of Rotarians was held in Chicago. There the convention heard an address from Chicago businessman and publisher Arthur Frederick Sheldon who laid out the mission of Rotarians in their communities and around the world.

“Only the science of right conduct toward others pays,” Sheldon said. “Business is the science of human services. He profits most who serves his fellows best.”

Sheldon’s remarks led to the creation of one of Rotary’s two official mottoes, One Profits Most Who Serves Best. A year later at the second annual Rotary convention in Portland, Oregon, Harris joined club presidents from Seattle and Minneapolis in a discussion of what should be the central organizing principle of a newly-formed Rotary Club. Over the course of their conversation they developed a simple, yet clear motto which remains well-known to this day: “Service Above Self.”

By this time Paul Harris had been elected president of the National Association of Rotary Clubs, which, as clubs were chartered in Canada, Ireland and England, become Rotary International.

In 1916, Herbert Coates, an English businessman visiting Cincinnati noticed how many of that city’s business leaders were engaged in preparing to host the upcoming Rotary convention. Curious about this civic club, he stopped by the local headquarters to learn more. He quickly became a convert to the cause and offered to help spread the Rotary message everywhere he went, beginning with an upcoming trip to Uruguay and Argentina. Herbert Coates thus became known as the “Father of Rotary in South America.”

By the early 1920s there were Rotary clubs on every continent except Antarctica. Harris would serve two terms at the helm and then be named president emeritus for another quarter century.

In its early days of organizing as an international entity, Rotary’s governing body decided that there would be no racial barriers to club membership and required all new clubs to adopt a statement of that nature into their organizing documents. However, Rotary club membership was restricted to men for many of the club’s early decades. A women’s auxiliary, the Inner Wheel, was founded in 1924 for wives of Rotarians, and these clubs pursued their own civic activities. It was not until the 1980s that Rotary fully opened its doors and its membership to women. In 1987 a Rotary club in California elected the first female club president.

As president of Rotary International, Paul Harris threw himself into the work of Rotary’s philanthropy, traveling the world to establish clubs of like-minded leaders and raising funds for its causes. When he died in 1947 Rotary International established the Paul Harris Memorial Fund to finance scholarships for study abroad programs.

Administering the polio vaccine.
Photo from 
Rotary International’s good works would go on long after Harris’ death. The organization launched a worldwide effort to fight polio, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is estimated to have provided more than 2.5 billion vaccines to children. Other Rotary causes through the years have included education and access to health care to prevent the spread of malaria and HIV/AIDS, as well as projects to provide clean water to communities from the Philippines to India to Lebanon and beyond.

Many clubs here in the United States have sister clubs in different countries in order to “form a long-term relationship to promote international understanding and good will.” As part of this effort the clubs offer an international Friendship Exchange program for Rotarians. Early in this century Rotary International partnered with eight major universities around the world to establish Rotary Centers for International Studies as a way of fostering peace and finding ways to resolve conflicts.

Closer to home, Rotary clubs continue their good works in local communities. Illinois Rotarians worked together to create a scholarship program for impoverished students. Others established “Interact Clubs” for middle and high school students to work together on service projects in their communities.

Rotary banners from around the world.
Photo from 
Today there are more than 35,000 Rotary clubs in the world, with Rotary International’s headquarters still here in Illinois, in Evanston. There are more than 300,000 Rotarians in North America and the Caribbean, second only to the nearly 400,000 in Asia. 

In all there are about 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide, a far-cry from the four businessmen who sat down in Gustavus Loehr’s office in Chicago back in 1905.