Meet Paul Harris

Saturday, 24 March 2007; Pueblo, Colorado, USA

Jack M. B. Selway,
Founder of Rotary Global History Fellowship

It’s been raining most of the day. We were able to take a forty minute walk before the chill of the March evening took us on.

I grew up in Montana and was schooled in the lore, legend, and journals of the famed “Lewis and Clark Expedition.” This is the story of US President Thomas Jefferson’s “Corp of Discovery” which set out to explore and document the unknown land west of the Mississippi River just eight years after the “Declaration of Independence” from England.

While I was a grade school student, over a century and a half later, in Salmon, Idaho, our sixth grade teacher read to us from the journals of the great journey, made all the more interesting since the expedition had come very close to that town where my mother’s family had settled in the late 1800’s. My father’s family settled on the Montana side of the continental divide and the expedition actually traveled right through what become our ranch property.

In a Public Broadcasting production of the journey, I listened to what a prominent geographer said of Captain William Clark, “If he were to come into my office I know that I would like him very much.” There was something about reading all of the written documents which must had given this modern day explorer that warm feeling about explorer Clark of two hundred years ago.


In Salmon, Idaho, my grandmother, after the death of her Rotarian husband, for years attended the meetings of his Idaho Rotary Club. I grew up thinking that my grandmother was a “Rotarian.” That is what she told me.

So becoming a Rotarian was something that must have been inevitable. In 1976 I had that opportunity as an honorary Rotarian, which, today, I am again.

My grandmother gave me more than an interest in Rotary, she and my teacher gave me a healthy curiosity. I’ve always wanted to know more about “how things work” and what makes people tick.

So when I heard this geographer talk about meeting his 200 year-removed colleague, I wondered what it would be like to meet Paul P. Harris, the founder of Rotary International. Since I originated this “history” project on 11 October 2000, I have been steadily working at gathering the history of Rotary. I’ve been privileged to work with many fine people listed on this website. I have taken the time to read everything that Harris ever wrote, everything that our team could find. We think that we’ve got most of his writing on our websites.


The question is a logical one to ask. Would I like this man whose mind dwarfs my knowledge, education, wisdom, and intellect?

The answer is that I don’t know and I’m not certain that he would like me at all. Though I’ve spend many years “finding” him I’ve never really thought about how I might feel about him. It’s presumptuous for me to even consider that relationship.

Certainly I admire him.


Asking Paul Percy Harris questions would be easy. I’ll share some of the things about which I’d dearly like to know more. Much of what he thought, read, wrote, dreamed of, and taught is well documented on our website and I offer that for any student interested in their own discovery. (There are ample links at the bottom of this page.)

There are still a few people living who actually knew him. For this venture, I’m going to assume that he knows all that has gone on since his passing on 27 January 1947. I’ll try to stay out of the way, but I’d really like to know what he thinks of our effort to preserve all the stories and photos of the friendship trees that he planted, often with his wife Jean Harris.

So let’s start there. Did he know that the symbolism that he carefully framed would not be lost to us nearly 70 years later? Would he care that little trees could still be symbols of friendship, growing and representing close fellowship that still continues to flourish? No doubt he knew that the trees he planted in Tokyo, Berlin, Shanghai, and other war torn cities had been destroyed before he died. What was his reaction to that?

I believe that Paul would tell us that he was deeply saddened. Not by the loss of the trees, but the loss of the friendships. He wrote eloquently about peace and the effort needed to sustain a peaceful world. He also knew his history and understood man’s inhumanity to man.

The trees and symbolism would be an easy way to start this interview. First, it’s something I know about and it’s something that I discovered that had been largely lost to history. By reading the section on “Friendship Trees” you’ll come to learn what these meant to Harris.

So, tomorrow, I’ll continue my questions for this complicated, peaceful man. What would you like to ask him? I’ll add your questions if you use our “Contact” link found at the top of this page.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Harris had a lot to say about his youth, his disappointment in his parents, but never condemning them, and ultimately showing great compassion for both of them as they spent their last days, just two hours north of where I presently live.


In “The Founder of Rotary” there is a lesson to be learned for all of us and considerable insights into the formation of Harris and what he carried into Rotary. He wrote this book while convalescing from his second serious heart attack. (The book and all other writings are found from the “Harris” link atop every page of our project. A number of references to Harris are also included at the bottom of this page.) His second major effort was “This Rotarian Age,” also found entirely on this website along with photos of inscriptions that are personal and revealing. He wrote this book while recuperating from what he described as a nervous breakdown. His last book found in an illustrated form and also text is “My Road to Rotary.” He died before this book could be published. If you read these books and then read his letters, articles, and messages to Rotary, you’ll find a philosophy of humanity, peace, and a vision of what Rotary can do for this world.


I feel compelled to tell you that I am not a historian, I have no degree. In fact I have no qualifications at all except that I created what has become recognized as an authoritative and useful resource for Rotarians around the world. My only skill is my insatiable curiosity that has led me to gain some degree of empathy and admiration for Mr. Harris. That curiosity started with one page, listing the first fifty clubs. It was early October 2000. Today, there are about 4,000 pages, perhaps 10 thousand articles, and five websites all under the care of an official Rotary “fellowship.” I’ve spoken to many clubs, district conferences, sung for international conventions, and even spoken to the club in Paul’s home town, but none of that qualifies me now. Only my curiosity and the success of this project give me any hope that I’m not way out of my league.


Paul Harris had no place in my first effort. As an active member of Club #2, the Rotary Club of San Francisco, I had somehow gotten the impression that Harris was not that interested in the growth of Rotary. There was some local belief that “Rotary” really got its start in San Francisco with the rapid spread to Oakland, Seattle, Los Angeles and tributaries beyond each of those clubs. (They were clubs 2, 3, 4, and 5)

In the process of collecting information about the first fifty clubs, I happened to speak to the executive director of club #41 when collecting the history of that club and gaining their participation for “Rotary First Fifty” which became our first website. I told this person that I found Harris (who had been employed in Jacksonville in the 1890’s) that I thought him to be a rather depressed and disengaged personality. “Oh that’s not the Paul Harris I know,” was her reply. She went on to describe a collection of “love letters” that she possessed written to someone he may have met during this period in Jacksonville. She went on to describe a person of warmth, humor, charm, deep emotion, and caring.

So, I found his last book “My Road to Rotary” and read it in one sitting. Then, I found the others in rare book collections, and by now I’ve read every thing that we’ve been able to find. Much of which has been done through the dedicated effort of my dear friend Wolfgang Ziegler. The woman in Jacksonville was right and I was dead wrong.


  • Who was the woman you met in Jacksonville? (twenty years before you met and quickly married Jean Thomson, late of Comely Bank Road, Edinburgh, Scotland)
  • You climbed Pike’s Peak, just forty miles from where I now live. You were a charter member of the Prairie Club of Chicago. You seemed so robust. How do you explain the chronic health problems you had later in life?
  • Katharine Lee Bates, while standing atop Pikes Peak, wrote “America The Beautiful” in 1893, just two years after you climbed its 14,000 foot heights. What did you think of her lyrics, and the subsequent song, compared to your own inspiration at that point of land?
  • Why were you so kind and thoughtful toward the parents who abandoned you not once but twice?
  • Was your father an actor in Denver in about 1900? We found a George Harris there as an actor, but is that your father? We did not include this since it could not be verified.
  • There was something that I learned from long time historians at the San Francisco club. It was reported that you once addressed a large gathering of Rotarians and said, “Imagine what we could do if half of you were Rotarians!” Did you actually say that?
  • You wrote that your Sunday telephone call with Ches Perry was a turning point in the early club’s efforts to prevent you from taking up club time with extensions and “round the world” Rotary. What was the nature of your relationship with Perry. He became an organizer of the 1910 conference and served until 1942 as secretary of Rotary. I can find no reference to anything that you two ever did together. Did you visit each other’s homes? Did you have lunch, anything? His tribute to you at the San Francisco convention was heartfelt.
  • What was really the problem with mining engineer Gus Loehr? Your writing is cryptic and leaves open the speculation that he had serious emotional problems. What we might diagnose as “Bipolar Disorder” today.
  • Did Harry Ruggles first start singing to stop an off color joke from being told? What about the stationary that Harry had printed up with “1904” on it. Did Rotary begin in 1904 or 1905?
  • When the early club members played a joke on you, at an early day meeting, were you offended enough to threaten to leave?
  • Who was the most important person in the early years? Ruggles, Perry, or your dear and steadfast friend and client Silvester Schiele?
  • What did you think of Stuart Morrow “selling” memberships in Ireland?
  • Was the Rawlins Wyoming “survey” the impetus for Rotary being “non-political?”
  • Do you feel you were fairly treated during the Rotary International Centennial, or did it even matter? What should your legacy be?
  • Did you write “This Rotarian Age” hoping that it might become a “textbook” for Rotary leadership?
  • How did you manage to maintain that beautiful home and travel so much? I know you said that Rotary invited you to travel on their behalf. Did Rotary help with the expenses? You also wrote that you left the practice of law soon after your second heart attack.
  • What was the “philosophy of Rotary?” What kept that effort from being a top priority?
  • What does Rotary need to do to again become the world presence it was from about 1930-50?
  • Your respect for women is well noted in your writing. What was your reaction to the legal action to bring women into Rotary and the subsequent acceptance of women in Rotary? Last year over 13% of Rotarians were women, but then you knew that.

References to Harris

  • Matts Ingemanson’s Suggestion
  • Joe Kagle’s Questions
  • Megs Lunn’s Response
  • Tribute to a Rotarian