How it Happened

On the evening of 23 February 1905, Paul Harris (19 April 1868 – 27 January 1947) invited three friends to a meeting. 1Silvester Schiele, (second from the left) (29 June 1870 – 17 December 1945) a coal dealer, 2Hiram Shorey, (next to Harris) (29 August 1962 – 29 March 1944) a merchant tailor, and 3Gustavus Loehr, (far left) ( 1864 – 23 May 1918) a mining engineer, gathered with Harris in Loehr’s business office in Room 711 of the Unity Building in downtown Chicago on Dearborn Avenue.
They discussed Harris’ idea that business leaders should meet periodically to enjoy camaraderie and to enlarge their circle of business and professional acquaintances. The club met weekly; membership was limited to one representative from each business and profession. Though the men didn’t use the term Rotary that night, that gathering is commonly regarded as the first Rotary club meeting. [From the May 1938 issue of The Rotarian Silvester Schiele describes the start of Rotary]

As they continued to convene, members began rotating their meetings among their places of business, hence the name Rotary. After enlisting a fifth member, printer 5Harry Ruggles, the group was formally organized as the Rotary Club of Chicago. The original club emblem, a wagon wheel design, was the precursor of the familiar cogwheel emblem now used by Rotarians worldwide.

By the end of 1905, the club’s roster showed a membership of 30 with Schiele as president and Ruggles as treasurer. Paul Harris declined office in the new club and didn’t become its president until two years later. Club membership grew, making it difficult to gather in offices, so the members shifted their meetings to hotels and restaurants, where many Rotary club meetings are held today.

These early “Rotarians” realized that fellowship and mutual self-interest were not enough to keep a club of busy professionals meeting each week. Reaching out to improve the lives of the less fortunate proved to be an even more powerful motivation. The Rotary commitment to service began in 1907 when the Rotary Club of Chicago constructed that city’s first public lavatory. With this inaugural project, Rotary became the world’s first serviceClub organization.

Three years after Paul Harris’ inspired idea, a San Francisco business person by the name of Homer Wood happened to have a conversation with a friend from Chicago who told him about their “club.” Woods grasped the concept and organized the Rotary Club of San Francisco in 1908. In a single year, 1909, Woods personally formed 6clubs 3, 4, and 5, in Oakland, California; Seattle, Washington; and Los Angeles, California. Then one of the San Francisco Rotarians, that same year, started the ball rolling for Club #6 in New York, New York. By December, Boston, Massachusetts was number 7 and Seattle formed Tacoma, Washington as number 8.

Paul Harris had been hoping for this and now the Chicago club really caught the bug, this thing was going to be big. The first place they headed was Minneapolis, Minnesota, which became number 9. Some St. Paul folks heard about this meeting and hurried over in time to meet with these people from Chicago and they became number 10.

When the National Association of Rotary Clubs held its first convention in 1910, there were 16 clubs. Those sixteen are known as the “organizational clubs as there was no provision for a “charter” to be granted since no formal institution existed to issue a charter. Harris was elected president.

At the following year’s convention, speakers used the phrases “Service, Not Self” and “He Profits Most Who Serves Best,” which became the organization’s mottoes. “Service, Not Self,” was later changed to “Service Above Self” and has since been adopted as Rotary’s primary motto.

(From “This Rotarian Age,” by Paul P. Harris 1935, pages 38-44)

1″There was Silvester, a coal dealer, our first president, he was of German parentage. His was a kindly nature and his face wont to light up with pleasure on meeting friends. He told interesting stories of his boyhood home on an Indiana farm, revealing the picture of a log cabin and family group around the fire place. He Told of the hardships of early life; for example, of the snow that used to pelt through he chinks in the roof of the attic in which he slept, forming miniature drifts upon the floor. He treasure the memory of those early days. Though his life in Chicago had been a struggle, he had managed to be helpful to the younger members of his family.

He had responded to his country’s call in its time of need, serving in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. Cleary he was eligible. Succeeding years have demonstrated the wisdom of the selection; Silvester fills a worthy place, and his life becomes increasingly useful with advancing years. He is the center of community activities and church work, the key man in charitable undertakings. Many young Men have him to thank for years of wise counsel. Many crippled children have him to thank for physical rehabilitation. To Silvester every human need is a command. His telephone rings night and day, but he is never too tired to respond although his health is not always the best, and he is very tired at times. During the early days of the depression, and until the charities in his part of the city were put on an organized basis, Sylvester’s office was made to serve as a clearing-house, and many hundred needy were given relief.

While Sylvester’s most manifest contribution to the common weal has been through community service, his contribution through vocational service, that is, in the management of his own business has been scarcely less commendable. His “turn over” among employees have always been negligible, though he has had many trying cases to deal with.

His foreman in Charge, who has been many years in Sylvester’s service, never fails to avail himself of every opportunity to speak a good work of his boss. More than once he has told the writer that if anything ever happens to the “Old Man” to make it necessary to him to discontinue the management of the business, he will terminate his service, because he never could be satisfied to work for another after having worked so long for the “Old Man.”

Sylvester’s record in community service, vocational service, as a humanitarian, neighbor and friend, will stand a lot of beating, as the English put it. To put it in other words, it is a splendid exemplification of the doctrine of Rotary in action. In the very early days of rotary, Silvester sponsored the reading of papers on the respective vocations of the members. Was it the beginning of the Vocational service activity in Rotary? Perhaps not, but it certainly was in perfect keeping with the developments which came further on”.

(see also Silvester Schiele, Early Leader)
2″Hiram, a merchant tailor who hailed from the state of Maine, was of the number. He was an agreeable fellow. He had never quite reconciled himself to life in a large city; in fact, through all the years his thoughts have constantly reverted to the state of his nativity. There he spends his summer vacations, and to the rock-ribbed state of Main he will eventually return to spend his remaining days.

Hiram, due to circumstances beyond his control, did not retain his membership in the club, though he has frequently manifested interest in the movement and shown that he cherishes the memory of the early days.” PH

Hiram Shorey

3″There was another of German parentage; Gustavus, a promoter. His personality challenged attention. His was a rare combination, the good in him easily out-weighing the bad. He was a stormy petrel, vehement, impetuous, imperative, domineering, in one breath; then calm docile and lovable in the next. He was always thought-compelling; his words were spoken with lightning-like rapidity, and with such force that men frequently stopped in the street to look at him. His educational advantage has been limited, but his English was classical. Where he found expression, was a quandary. Gus’ membership was of brief duration. The feverish ups and downs of business resulted first in his resignation from membership, and a few years later in his Death. Requiescat in pace. Dear Gus, you rested little while here.” PH (An essay on Gus Loehr, the tenant of Room 711)

4The “Rotarian Magazine” version of this story and those from first hand narrative in books by Chicago, San Francisco and Oakland (clubs 1, 2 & 3) vary. It does appear that several years of informal discussions took place and that the “first meeting” might have been part happenstance and part planning, but was destined, in the mind of Paul Harris, to happen. This “dream” had been brewing for years. Conversations with Silvester Schiele are witness to that.

5″Harry, a printer, was number five. He measured up to every requirement, insofar as his business habits were concerned; he was reliable, punctual, and straight-forward; dishonesty was to him incomprehensible. The only question in the minds of the others was, “How does he stand in the point of fellowship?” He seemed cold, unemotional, and inexperienced in the ways of men. Harry had been raised raised on a farm in northern Michigan. He father had been an upright and religious man, whose weakness bed been his childish faith in all mankind. As a consequence, his cupboard was so frequently bare that the belief that man was created for the purpose of waging merciless warfare against poverty was deeply embedded in young Harry’s mind. Also see Harry Ruggles, Early Leader

6(This Rotarian Age, 1935, page 77-78, Paul P. Harris) “Early in the 1908, Manuel Munoz, a member of the Chicago club, was prevailed upon to carry the message to San Francisco. He pledged himself to interest some suitable resident of the city of the Golden Gate in the organization of a club. In homer Wood, a young lawyer, he found the right man. Homer not only organized a club in his own city, but in conjunction with other friends organized clubs number three in Oakland, and number four in Los Angeles.

That the San Francisco club took itself seriously is evidenced by the fact that Mr. Charles M. Schwab was the speaker at the first meeting. From San Francisco the good word was speedily carried to Seattle.”