RGHF History

A One Page History of the Beginning and Growth of Rotary

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

From the years 1891-1896 Paul Harris, who was raised by his New England grandparents with values of tolerance toward all, gained his law degree in 1891. 1 In 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 which Paul replied: “I am sure you are right but I am not going to Chicago for the purpose of making money; I am going for the purpose of living a life.”

1896-1905 In 1896, he did go to Chicago to practice law. One evening, in 1900, 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.

1905-19082 On February 23, 1905, Paul Harris had dinner with his closest friend, Chicago coal dealer Silvester Schiele. Afterwards they walked over the river 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. 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. Paul Harris later wrote: “The significant occurrence of the second meeting was the introduction of Harry Ruggles, the printer. Harry was destined to play an important part in the life of the Chicago club, for through his suggestion of club singing his influence has been made felt by the entire movement.” Paul P. Harris, page 95 “The Founder of Rotary 1928. 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.

1908-19101 Paul was very interested in starting Rotary in other cities. The second Rotary club was founded by Homer Wood in San Francisco in 1908.7 Wood then quickly organized Oakland #3. (When did weekly meetings begin? 6 According to the general secretary in 1948 , it was Oakland #3 in 1909.) Seattle #4 and Los Angeles #5. In fact, before the end of 1909, there were seven clubs, including New York City #6 and Boston #7. That’s right, in 1908 and 1909, Homer Wood started four clubs. In the rest of the United States there were two, and the San Francisco club is credited, by some, with starting New York.


Paul Harris 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.”


1910-1911 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. 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.

1912-23 4 When 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. 5 Paul 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.

19475 As 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. 6 When 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

1947-894 Two 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 China. In 1987, Rotary membership was opened to women, and in 1989 the RI Council on Legislation standardized all Rotary documents and rules

1989-2005 Rotary came close to removing polio from the face of the earth and, in 2005, returned, again, to Chicago to celebrate the first 100 years.

How did Rotary get its name?

Harris explains from “The Founder of Rotary” page 96: “During the course of one of the early meetings, Paul suggested several possible names for the new club. Among others—Rotary. It met with general favor and was adopted forthwith. The significance of the name becomes apparent on examination of the original plan of the club, which provided for rotation in the place of meeting, in the chairmanship, and even in membership which was to be continued for one year only.” (For other “Firsts” in Rotary, Click here)2
For serious students only: The Heartland Abroad: The Rotary Club’s Mission of Civic Internationalism, Brendan M. Goff

Who was the first Rotary president?

Silvester Schiele. The meeting, where a president was chosen, happened to be in Schiele’s office, hence, as a courtesy, he became the president.”Silvester Schiele, my most intimate Chicago friend, and one of the three who first met with me, was made our first president, and has been a constant member. Gustavus Loehr and Hiram Shorey were the other two but they failed to follow through. On the other hand Harry Ruggles, Charley Newton, and others who were quickly added to the group, with hearty zest joined in developing the project.” (Paul Harris, page 231 “My Road to Rotary”)

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