A One Page History of Rotary

In 1905, 37 year old attorney Paul Harris changed the world. 

                Paul Harris, who was raised by his New England grandparents with values of tolerance toward all, gained his law degree in 1891. 1In his senior year, a former graduate told his class that they should “Go to a small town for five years make a fool of themselves, then go to the big city!” Paul decided to hit the road for the entire world. He worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, 1891; manual laborer on a fruit ranch, then raisin packing plant, teacher at the L.A. Business College in 1892. Denver, Colorado, 1892: Actor in a stock company, reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, cowboy, reporter for The Republican. Jacksonville, Florida: St. James Hotel night clerk, traveling granite/marble salesman 1892/93, reporter on the Washington Star, cattleman on a ship 1893, haymaker and cannery worker 1893, sub-foreman of the gang of cattlemen 1893, (where he wrote that, on his first voyage, he experienced sub-human conditions); orange picker in Florida 1893, back to Jacksonville selling marble granite. His territory included the southern states, Cuba, the Bahamas and Europe. When he announced that he was going to Chicago to practice law his employer said, "Whatever the advantages of settling in Chicago may be, I am satisfied you will make more money if you remain with me." To the Paul replied: "I am sure you are right but I am not going to Chicago for the purpose of making money; I am going to the purpose of living a life."

In 1896, he did go to Chicago to practice law.  One evening, in the early 1900’s, Paul went with a professional friend to his suburban home.  After dinner, as they strolled through the neighborhood, Paul’s friend introduced him to tradesmen in their stores.  This reminded Paul of his grandparent’s home in New England.   “Why not have a fellowship composed of businessmen from different occupations, without restrictions of politics or religion?” he thought.

      2On February 23, 1905, Paul Harris had dinner with his closest friend, Chicago coal dealer Silvester Schiele. Afterwards they walked up to Room 711 of the Unity Building where they met their host, Gustavus Loehr, a mining engineer; and another friend, Hiram Shorey, a merchant tailor.  Harris proposed that they form a club. No name was chosen for the group. But they agreed to meet next at the offices of Silvester Schiele. The second meeting was March 9th. Three other men, Harry Ruggles, William Jenson, and A. L. White joined them. Ruggles was a printer, and created the “name badge” version of the Rotary “wheel” and also started singing in Rotary. In fact his singing kept the group from disbanding more than once. It was also decided that “rotating” the meetings made “Rotary” the most logical name.  Two weeks later the group gathered at the office of Silvester Schiele, in his coal yard at Twelfth and State Streets.  Six of the previous seven were present along with Charles Newton and Arthur B. Irwin.

      2Who was the first Rotary president? Silvester Schiele. When it came time for the meeting to be held at A. L. White's place of business (at Englewood), the location was “inconvenient” and thus was the first Rotary meeting in hotel. As with many new ventures, some new members didn’t remain. Shorey and Loehr, half of the original four were not active after the first few meetings. When did weekly meetings begin? 6According to the general secretary in 1948, it was Oakland #3 in 1909.

      1Paul was very interested in starting Rotary in other cities. The second Rotary club was founded by Homer Wood in San Francisco in 1908. 7Wood then quickly organized Oakland #3, Seattle #4 and Los Angeles #5. 2The activity caused by San Francisco created the first major conflict within the Rotary Club of Chicago. Too much of the meeting time was being taken up with reports of "new clubs." Harris also had a vision of “Around the World Rotary” which was also opposed by many of his fellow Rotarians. It was not until he won the loyalty of the man who was to be Rotary’s secretary from 1910 – 1942 that Rotary became organized and international. That man was Chesley Perry, whom Paul called the “Builder of Rotary.”

      3&7 By August 1910 there were sixteen clubs and the National Association of Rotary Clubs was organized and held its first convention that year, in Chicago.  At the 1911 Portland Convention, “Service, Not Self” was introduced by Frank Collins of Minneapolis. It later became “Service Above Self.” The slogan “He profits most who serves best,” was also read there.  It had been written by Arthur Sheldon and delivered by him at the first convention the previous year in Chicago. Both were approved by RI in 1950. Learn what Sheldon really meant by his well thought phrase. You can study all of Rotary's conventions from 1910 on and learn about each of our presidents from Paul Harris to the present as well as their clubs from our website dedicated to presidents of Rotary. (some pages are under construction)

      Another important event at the 1911 Portland convention was the platform brought forward by Seattle #4. This platform, is still essential to the philosophy of Rotary today.

      4When clubs were formed in Canada and Great Britain in 1912, the name was changed to the International Association of Rotary Clubs, and was later shortened to Rotary International in 1922.  5Paul Harris was the first president of the National Association of Rotary Clubs, serving two terms. He was named President Emeritus of the International Association in 1912 and served until his death in 1947. 1Harris suffered a near fatal heart attack in his final year as president of the National Association and required a full year to recover. Yet, over the next 35 years, he and his wife Jean Thomson Harris made numerous exhausting trips to nearly every continent, visiting hundreds of cities, planting friendship trees and attending Rotary conferences.

      5As Rotary spanned the globe, branch offices were opened in Europe, South America, South Asia, Southwest Pacific. In the UK British Rotary had its own office. 6When Rotary International President Emeritus, world traveler, author and prominent Chicago attorney Paul Harris passed away on January 27, 1947, his dream had grown from one group of four to 6,000 clubs in 75 countries with 300,000 members brought together through the service and fellowship of Rotary

      4Two world wars changed the face of Rotary – parts of the Far East and Eastern Europe were closed to Rotary. Eventually, clubs were re-established in Japan, Germany, Poland and Hungary.  In 1990 the first club was opened in the former Soviet Union and negotiations are currently underway to re-establish Rotary in China.  In 1987, Rotary membership was opened to women, and in 1989 the RI Council on Legislation standardized all Rotary documents and rules.

      4There are over 31,000 Rotary clubs, in 164 countries, whose members carry on club, vocational, community and international service.  The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International annually spends some $105 million on international education and humanitarian programs, providing grants which save lives and improve conditions throughout the world. Rotary also sponsors international ambassadors of good will through educational awards to university students and teachers, and through international exchange of business and professional people.  Today the Rotary Foundation scholarship program is the world’s largest privately funded international scholarship program.  7Approximately 1,100 scholarships are awarded annually.  Rotarians have raised some 438 million dollars for the PolioPlus program alone as well as provided thousands of volunteers to administer the vaccine around the world. 

This short history was produced by Rotary’s Global History Project: www.RotaryHistory.org. Sources and applicable copyrights are listed at the website links found on this page.  Contributors to this project are members of www.RotaryHistory.org/committee

Inspired by RC of Peoria, IL, USA #76 District 6460


1My Road To Rotary, Copyright Rotary International  2The Golden Strand, Copyright Rotary Club of Chicago  3First Men of Rotary, The Rotarian Magazine, copyright Rotary International 4Rotary Club of Peoria 5Rotary International  6My Road To Rotary – Appendix, copyright A. Kroch and Son  7 Rotary Archives Department 8Seventy-Five Years in San Francisco, copyright SF#2