RGHF Speeches

What is Rotary, by Jack M. B. Selway

“Paul Harris, The Man in the Medallion”

A speech on Rotary’s growth presented in Salt Lake City August of 2002

How many of us are Rotarians?

I hope that, in reading this, you might gain some insight into Paul Harris, whose face is so familiar to all of Rotary, mostly in the medallion and pins those of us wear when we contribute $1,000.00 or more to The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International. This is the first in what, hopefully, will be a series on this man, locked for time in a pin.

There’s one bit of folklore from an old Rotarian who learned it from another old Rotarian. It was Paul Harris speaking to a large gathering. Paul Harris looks out this sea of men with pins and says, “Imagine what we could do if even half of you were Rotarians.”

For all his remarkable tolerance and love of man, I’m discovering that Paul Harris had a capacity to push the envelope and frustrate even those he sought to inspire. According to RC of Chicago’s “The Golden Strand,” Harris was not the unanimous choice to head the first national organization. Some felt him too autocratic. However he did lead Rotary for its first two years, and then suffered a near fatal heart attack.

Then followed a year of recover, then years of daily attention to Rotary, but few appearances at conventions, save a big surprise as RI President Eugene Newsome was about to announce, with regret that the founder would not be present and that the secretary would, as was customary, read his statement. Paul Harris, then suddenly appeared on the floor of the 25th anniversary convention of Rotary, in Chicago, and spoke a few words.

This was amazing as just two years earlier he had again nearly died from another serious heart attack. As noted in James Walsh’s biography “The First Rotarian,” it took two years to recover this time. At this point Harris was also unable to carry on with his law practice. Yet, he and jean had 17 years remaining, and an entire world that they would visit. The bravery and strength of this man is amazing. The volumes of invaluable writing left behind is a treasure of these trips.

Suddenly, I’m reminded of the voice of Paul Harris, which you can hear at rotaryfirst100.org. He is introduced, on radio, from the 1933 Boston Convention. “Friends of the air.” he says. He is speaking to non-Rotarians and he gives his definition of a “Rotarian.”

Do we live up to Paul Harris’ definition? He was the messenger of his own dream.
And that brings me to my story: “The Spanish American War and How Rotary Came to Salt Lake City and on to my Home of Pueblo, Colorado.”

From the Spanish American War many will remember future US president Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. But who remembers that President Roosevelt later said, “In order to prepare for our future we must learn from our past?” Some may remember a small pamphlet call “The message to Garcia” that also came from that same war.

Rotary’s Global History Fellowship has also a message to deliver from men long gone, important for all of us (and hopefully nobody has to cross a jungle for that purpose.)

By some coincidence, two of the men who played such an important role in Rotary’s future, were two fighting buddies from Cuba.

When these two close friends had finished their service to country, they returned home. One, a decorated soldier went to Chicago not be heard from again for about ten years. The other came here, to Salt Lake City and became successful in banking.

Who is Howard Harris?

They are going to be very important to us, but let’s leave them and return to the end of Andrew Johnson’s unremarkable term as president of the United States. Because none of this would be important were it not that two months after the impeachment of the president, on April 19, 1868, a child was born to the Harris family of Racine, Wisconsin.

George was not much of a father. But, in his defense neither was his father. Howard’s fathering of George was to buy the young man a drugstore in Racine. A situation that caused him to feel no particular responsibility toward this enterprise. So, in 1871 taking two of the children to live with his father might not have been any more shameful than squandering his father’s money. This he would do again.

But, where the elder Howard Harris might have failed his son, we owe Paul Harris’ grandfather and grandmother everything we today enjoy in Rotary. “I think I inherited something of grandfather’s broad spirit of tolerance. Grandfather was an ambassador of good-will in the eyes of the youngster who sat at his table during his impressionable years; he never spoke evil of any man nor of any man’s religion or politics.” My Road To Rotary page 208.


Howard and Pamela Harris allowed Paul the life of a child, boy, young man and young adult that his father George Harris and spendthrift mother Cornelia Bryan Harris could never have offered. It was Howard Harris’ “love of man” that most impressed young Paul and shaped his life. Paul’s definition of a Rotarian, “One who has ‘love of man’ in his heart.” Now we know!


Harris was gifted, a genius who created one of the world’s most powerful forces and he was well prepared for it. However, he knew that he had the father in him and so before practicing law in Chicago he became a wanderer of the world for five years. From his graduation from law school until he arrived in Chicago in 1896 he slept in fields, picked crops, herded cattle, and wrote for newspapers in San Francisco, Denver and DC. He shipped out as a cattleman for the British Isles and describes living in conditions of sub-human squallier. He learned of suffering and of wealth. He also sold marble, was a hotel clerk, actor, business teach, but hungry lonely or happy he proved he was his own man.

His travels were gave him valuable experience, tested him and proved his determination. Paul Harris, we might say he was the “right man at the right time,” a man with an incredible determination to reach a predefined goal. In this first autobiography, just after his second major illness, The Founder of Rotary page 58 Secret of Success he writes “People have frequently expressed wonder at his ability to land almost immediately on his feet after arrival in a strange city; even men of considerable experience such as roving newspaper men have expressed amazement. Harry Pulliam, for instance, used to call Paul the wonder man . To those who have sometimes been out of jobs for months at a time in their home cities, Paul s experiences would probably seem miraculous. The fact that he could do what he did was as much a tribute to the astonishing resources of the country in which he lived as to Paul personally. “

Pulliam was one of many friends he met on his five year journey, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, who became the president of the National Baseball League.

We know him as the father of Rotary. He was highly decorated and celebrated in other fields and in law. He became one of Chicago’s prominent attorneys. One evening, around the turn of the century, he took dinner with a fellow attorney. (And, by the way, even his obituary, in the Chicago Tribune, says that Rotary was born out of loneliness. Don’t believe it. He may have been lonely when he arrived in Chicago, but he made friends wherever he went. However, it is true that he and some of his friends did miss the society of the small towns from which they had come.)

As he and his friend were walking after dinner, the fellow attorney was being greeted by merchants and friends. It was then that Paul got his inspiration for an organization such as we have today. “The thought came to me why not in big Chicago have a fellowship composed of just one man from each of many different occupations, with no restrictions as to their politics or religion, with broad tolerance of each other’s opinions? In such a fellowship could there not be mutual helpfulness?” Paul Harris, Page 230 My Road to Rotary.

He thought about this for months, years until the winter night of 23 February 1905 when he and his best friend, Silvester Schiele, a coal merchant, had Italian dinners at Madam Galli’s famous restaurant and then walked over the river to the Unity Building and up to room 711, the office of mining engineer Gus Loehr. Hiram Shorey, a tailor was also there. Paul told them of his idea which was accepted and on March 9th they met again. Gus and Hiram were still there, but not for much longer. Paul’s friend Harry Ruggles, a printer and several others joined. Two weeks later they met at Sylvester’s coal business. And since he was the host, he became the first president of what they decided should be called Rotary.

Harry Ruggles then plays a significant role in the very early meetings. He is the printer and so he creates the first “printed” wheel for Rotary. But things don’t always go smoothly, and on more than one occasion the Chicago “Boys” are ready to quit this “fellowship” idea of Paul Harris’. There are even indications, written well beneath the lines that Paul Harris might have been marching to a different drummer. Anyway, we know that when it looked like the club was going to collapse, Harry would jump up and yell, “Hell boys, let’s sing a song.” Today we recognize Harry Ruggles for introducing singing into Rotary. In fact, he saved Rotary with a song. Also, in James Walsh’s landmark 1979 book, “The First Rotarian” Ruggles known as the “Fifth Rotarian” swore until his death that he and Paul worked on Rotary in 1904.

But, now things come to a head. A former hotel roommate of Paul’s, Manuel Munoz happened to be traveling to San Francisco and Paul asked him to look for opportunity. It worked. Young San Francisco Attorney Homer Wood, with help from some friends had SF, Oakland, Seattle and LA #2-5 organized in short order.



This was not good! In the third year Paul was president of his own Chicago club until October when he resigned and Harry Ruggles took his place. Harry has getting mounting pressure from other members to stop all of the wasted time at meetings about the “extension” business and particularly Paul’s “World Around” Rotary ideas. The Chicago boys simply did not want it.

A Spanish American War Veteran and his buddy

So, Harry Ruggles picked a brand new Rotarian. This man, like Silvester Schiele, had seen action in the Spanish American War, he was highly decorated and Paul wrote that the “incoming” president hoped to “spike the guns” of the “world widers” with this extension chairman, who was named Chesley Perry.


Paul waited until a Sunday afternoon to call Ches to allow plenty of time to talk to this new Rotarian. Paul got his ally and it probably saved Rotary. Ches helped organize the National Association of Rotary Clubs, the 1910 Convention in Chicago and served as Rotary’s first secretary for 32 years.

Oh, and his buddy from the Spanish American War? Wes King was a successful banker and as soon as Ches learned of Rotary he contacted his service buddy to tell him to start a Salt Lake City Club.

It was 1910 that Wes gathered businessmen in Salt Lake City to start a similar club. There were 16 clubs by 1910 and several nearby on the west coast which could serve as sponsors. But San Francisco and Oakland declined to sponsor because of a clash between the Mormon and non-Mormon prospective Rotarians. Finally, in 1911, one of the members actually locked the organizers in a room until they came to an agreement, which they did. Here we are in the home of Ches Perry’s dear friend and Rotary 24.


Soon after, Bert Scribner, a Pueblo, Colorado businessman happened to visit Salt Lake City and was invited to lunch at the new club. He learned how these groups settled their differences. In Pueblo there were several municipal governments, two water and school districts and plenty of distrusts in a city once separated into France and Mexico by the Arkansas River. And that’s how the Spanish American War played a role in the success of Rotary, the host club of today’s meeting and the club where my project was born, Rotary 43.

A short side story of money and politics in Rotary, even in 1919. John Poole, the 1918 RI president was on his way to the RI convention of 1919 in Salt Lake City with a car load of fellow Rotarians. They planned to stay over in Denver for some entertainment. However, a former Colorado Governor and bank president by the name of Adams from the city of Pueblo’s club #43 happened to know that RI president Poole had some outstanding debts owed to his bank. So according to Rotary 43’s records Poole and his guests had a most enjoyable stay in Pueblo before departing for the 1919 convention in Salt Lake City.

Well, there are many interesting stories. History is full of them. But what do we owe these men?

Without Howard Harris and Ches Perry would there have been a United Nations as we know it? Could WOODROW WILSON have proclaimed that “Rotary is the only cement which will hold the nations of the world together in permanent peace…the cement of friendship,”. were it not for Silvester Schiele’s dependable friendship? Would Polio have been eradicated if Paul Harris had not had the determination of a hundred men? Yes, we owe much to these early leaders. And, there is much we still can learn from them.

This huge website has the keys to Rotary’s success, from the histories of early clubs on all continents to the lives of men who led the movement. Paul Harris was the visionary, but it took other spirits such as Grandfather Harris to guide young Paul and Harry Ruggles to save an infant Rotary club and then Ches Perry to prevent Harry from stopping Paul’s forward progress. And what about Jean Harris? What do we own the First Lady of Rotary?

Today, Rotary clubs all over the world are joining Rotary Global History . When Maureen Bond, president of the Rotary Club of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe wrote asking me what we knew about Jean Harris, we started looking. Today, her section of the website is 8 pages with information about her all throughout the website. Most recently, we located a photo of her last appearance in America at the 50th Anniversary of Rotary International in Chicago.


When Jim Buffington, of the Rotary Club of Aberdeen Mississippi wrote asking for a back issue of our popular weekly email series “What Paul Harris Wrote,” (inspired incidentally by RI director Lynn Hammond) I wrote a special one for Jim and upon visiting his website, discovered Paul Harris leaning on a shovel. As a result, today there is an extensive website of the “Friendship Trees” planted, in the 1930’s, by Paul and Jean, all over the world. It’s a marvelous tribute to Rotary. Trees destroyed by World Wars are shown replanted and surrounded by Rotarians of all nations. We even have some excellent motion picture film of Paul in Sweden planting a tree.

Paul Harris autobiography, “My Road to Rotary” was being discontinued as of mid May this year. The importance of history has changed that. As messengers, we’ve made a difference and the book will be republished. If the story of our history is told by more messengers this year and next then the centennial book won’t become a coffee table book, it will be read, because we, you and I will have created an interest in the real story. It is our recommendation that every new district governor should have a copy of this book.


Who’s working on Rotary Global History ? We have a world-wide committee from Shanghai, Canberra, Chicago, New York, London, Germany, Calcutta, South Africa and Barcelona to Pueblo there are leading Rotarians and recognized historians working on this project.

No one asked us to be their messengers. Not Montague Bear, Frank Collins, Jim Davidson, Arch Klumph, Glenn Mead, Stuart Morrow, Ches Perry, Harry Ruggles, Silvester Schiele, Arthur Sheldon, Herb Taylor, Homer Wood or even Jean or Paul Harris. But, it is clear that their message is still important and should be delivered. Paul said, “This is a changing world; we must be prepared to change with it. The story of Rotary will have to be written again and again



The sixth president of Rotary Arch Klumph placed an emphasis on District Governors who were “gradually becoming the most important man in Rotary”. Klumph insisted that the District Governors know the International Constitution and be acquainted with Rotary Global History. He referred them to Ches Perry’s newly drafted pamphlet that answered the basic questions of when the organization was founded, when did it start and how did it start.



Frank Devlyn wrote, “This is an exciting time in the History, and as we enter the 21st Century, it is even more important that we examine our past. Your web site is an instrumental tool for those forward-thinking people who wish to learn from our history, in order to guide our future.” Those words, of past president Frank Devlyn, are part of our mission statement.



On January 30th of 2002, President Bhichai told the INTERNATIONAL ASSEMBLY AT ANAHEIM “Let us remember and honor our origins. Let us not forget the basics and the fundamental principles and philosophy of Rotary.”

Today, our project is the official website for the Paul Harris Room 711 Club, located at RI Headquarters. We’re an affiliate of the Rotary Heritage and History International Fellowship working to acquire the Harris home, Comely Bank as a Rotary landmark retreat.

Our project has just been voted “Best of the Rest” by ROTi and ICUFR for 2002 and we had 30,960 visitors in the first 4 months of this year at an average 29% growth each month. We estimate 116,000 monthly visitors by March of next year and an impossible number of 1,485,601 monthly visits by the official start of the centennial.

I must ask that we all be Rotarians as much as we can, that we meet Paul Harris’ definition of a Rotarian to the best of our ability and I ask that you join with us at rotaryfirst100.org/fellowship and become messengers by creating access to Rotary’s history on your websites and making it part of your presentations to all of your clubs.

This is a tool. Interesting and entertaining, yes. All the better then. Quote: “I hope that Rotary Clubs will be able to utilize this resource as a means to make contacts with others and to share the history of our organization with prospective members. … I am counting on you… ” Richard D. King President, 13 July 2001



Portrait of Franklin D. RooseveltIn our first fifty years, Rotary held the world’s attention in ways that the world needs us to once again. Quote: “Thinking of Rotary, I visualize a series of concentric circles which, starting with the smallest and going to the largest, I denominate as the community, national and international influence. In the center, I see Rotary International as a generating force of incalculable value.” FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT



“All Thinking men recognize the moral and spiritual value of Rotary.” SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL, who also said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”



“God grant that my vision of the faults of men and of nations be dimmed and my vision of their virtues be brightened”. -Paul P. Harris. Page 304 – The End of My Road to Rotary.

In closing, Rotary’s Global History is not a dusty library shelf. Reading about the early leaders of Rotary and the stories of the many early clubs will help you lead Rotary into the future. Many of the books and writings are out of prints. However, they can be found on the 3,000 pages of rghf.org. If we as Rotarians learn from this brilliant writer and leader; called the right man at the right time, we’ll find ourselves more dedicated to service with greater purpose, in part because of Paul Harris, “The Man in The Medallion.”


Jack M. B. Selway