Rotary International History - Paul Harris

Rotary is a worldwide, not for profit, volunteer organization of business and professional leaders that provides humanitarian services to children and disadvantaged persons throughout the world. In addition, Rotary initiatives are designed to promote peace and goodwill. Currently there are more than 1.1 million Rotarians in 31,000 clubs in over 180 countries.  Rotary is supported solely by voluntary contributions from Rotarians and others who share its vision for a better world. Since 1947, hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated for humanitarian and educational grants which are then administered by local Rotary clubs and districts.

Rotary clubs meet weekly, are nonpolitical, nonreligious and open to all cultures, races and creeds.

The main objective of Rotary is Service, in the community, in the workplace and throughout the world. Rotarians develop community service projects that address many of today’s most critical issues such as children at risk, poverty and hunger, the environment, illiteracy and violence. Rotary also supports enrichment programs for youth, educational opportunities, and international exchanges for students, teachers and other professionals. The Rotary motto is Service above Self.


Although all Rotary clubs develop autonomous service programs, Rotarian’s around the world are united in a program to eradicate polio.  For the past 30 + years almost one billion dollars has been raised to combat polio. Within the past five years the Bill Gates Foundation has joined Rotary in this effort which has increased funding dramatically.  In addition, Rotary has provided an army of volunteers to promote and assist at national immunization days in polio endemic countries around the world. To date only four countries still combat polio-Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria.

 Paul Harris

So how did Rotary get its start?  A gentleman named Paul Harris is the founder of Rotary. Born in 1868 in Wisconsin, Harris attended the University of Vermont, Princeton and University of Iowa where he received his law degree in 1891.  Upon graduation he travelled the world and worked in a number of jobs as newspaper reporter, college teacher, actor and cowboy. His early travel and work experiences broadened his vision and were of material assistance in the early development of Rotary.


In 1896, Paul Harris went to Chicago to practice law. +One day in 1900 he dined with a lawyer friend in Rogers Park, a residential section of Chicago. After dinner they took a walk and he was impressed with the fact that his friend stopped at several stores and shops in the neighborhood and introduced him to the owners who were his friends. Paul Harris’ law clients were business friends, not social friends, but this experience caused him to wonder why he could not make social friends out of at least some of his business friends---and he resolved to organize a club which would band together a group of representative business and professional men in friendship and fellowship.


For the next several years he devoted a great deal of time to reflecting on conditions of life and business and by 1905 he had formulated a definite philosophy of business relations. After talking about his ideas with several business associates he decided, with his friends, to organize a club which he had been thinking about for five years. On February 23, 1905, the clubs first meeting took place and the nucleus was formed for the thousand of Rotary clubs which were later organized throughout the world. The new club which Paul Harris named “Rotary” because the members met, in rotation, in their various places of business, met with general approval and membership grew quickly.  Almost all members had come to Chicago from rural areas and were anxious to affiliate with other business people when they arrived in Chicago. When Paul Harris became president of the club in its third year he was anxious to extend Rotary to other cities because he was convinced that the Rotary club could be developed into an important service movement.  The second club was founded in San Francisco in 1908.  The next two years 16 other clubs were formed and then it was decided they should be united into an organization which would extend the movement to other cities and to become a clearinghouse to exchange ideas among the other clubs and the National Association of Rotary Clubs was formed. Shortly thereafter Rotary clubs formed in Canada and Great Britain making the movement international in scope. In 1922 that organization was renamed Rotary International.  Paul Harris was the first president of the International Association. When he passed away in 1947, he was named president emeritus of Rotary International.


During his time in Rotary, Paul Harris was also prominent in many civic and professional endeavors. Most of his efforts focused on disadvantaged youth.  To this day Paul Harris is considered the “father of Rotary” and the foundation that now bears his name funds projects all over the world.   

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