Sample: Introduction Chapter


“The truth is, he rode no white charger, he carried no flaming sword. He was rather, a very average young man much too busy to take on outside obligations, much too harassed by the demands of earning a living. They say he was good-hearted but prone to procrastination. However, he had one saving grace- he recognized his shortcomings.”1 Oren Arnold, The Golden Strand

Rotary International is comprised of over thirty thousand clubs located in approximately two hundred thirty countries around the world. It boasts a membership
that fluctuates between 1.2 to 1.3 million individuals who have dedicated themselves to providing “Service Above Self.” Rotarians are pledged to render assistance to their clubs, vocations, communities, and world. They test themselves by asking if their actions will be truthful, fair, and beneficial to all concerned, while at the same time building goodwill, enjoying friendships, and creating unity among the business and professional people they represent.

The Rotary logo of a six-spoke, industrial cogged gear-wheel is a recognizable emblem signifying the ability of various clubs to work together. Perhaps somewhat
dated in today’s computerized universe, it stands for progress. However, it is equally true that while many people may be familiar with this identifiable symbol, they have little or no knowledge of what it represents or the actions Rotarians are conducting in their neighborhoods or in the remote corners of the globe. Most see this blue and gold nsignia as a metal sign posted visibly at the entrance to their communities. Or sometimes they might notice a small pin attached on the lapel of a club member’s coat or shirt.

In reality, hundreds of thousands of local humanitarian, educational, and health-related Rotary projects occur someplace around the planet daily. Very few communities have not experienced the hand of a Rotary program intended to make a difference in their cities, towns, or villages. Every day Rotarians are at work someplace bringing new hope to those in need.

Certainly Rotary’s largest promise and undertaking is the eradication of polio. To date, over two billion children have been vaccinated, sparing them the ravages of this crippling disease. Because of the Rotary Foundation’s commitment, millions of volunteers have dedicated their time, energies, and financial resources to support this compassionate worldwide endeavor. Yet strangely Rotary undertakings, both locally and internationally, occur without much fanfare or publicity. For the most part Rotarians seem content to go about their business of changing lives unheralded.

It simply is impossible to calculate how many hundreds of millions of lives have been touched since Rotary’s inception in 1905. Few cannot doubt the impact Rotary has made over the last one hundred plus years, nor is there any question it will continue to have a significant influence in the future.

But this is not the story of what Rotary does or how it does it. It is not a history of how the organization achieved its preeminent position one project at a time. For
readers looking for those details, there are dozens of other sources to consult. Nor is it a telling of how such customs, traditions, and programs like the “Four Way
Test,” “The Rotary Code of Ethics,” “The Four Avenues of Service,” came into being. It definitely is not a catalog of important achievements made by the various
presidents and administrations of Rotary International. Those highlights can be found elsewhere.

What this book hopes to do is explore the roots of this magnificent organization and its founder Paul Percy Harris. What were his background and the circumstances
that led to his creating Rotary? Who was this man and why did he do what he did?

Contrary to popular belief, Rotary dedication to providing humanitarian services did not spring fully grown, like Athena, from the head of its creator. It took years
to evolve. And as it has evolved, certain events surrounding the birth of Rotary and the actions of its founder have become clouded by mystery, misconception, and revision.
Like Christmas, so many stories have been created that the actual truth is difficult to determine. Adding to this confusion is the fact that the several attempts to
document the early days of Rotary were written years after the various episodes had occurred and were subjected to the shifting memories, motives, and interpretations
of those involved.

It is not my intent to challenge or dispute these works or what little is known about Paul Harris’s life. What I anticipate to accomplish is shed a fresh light on
an old story, and correct the more obvious mistakes based on new documents that have become available. I want to make Paul Harris human. By doing this, perhaps
we can understand a little better how the successful chemistry of Rotary came about.

Today, it is perhaps ironic few Rotarians fully understand the role Paul Harris had in establishing their organization. I say ironic, because almost every club has dedicated a portion of their history to describing who and what Paul Harris did in 1905, the year Rotary was started. Yet, almost every history written by the clubs comes from a single source. Ultimately, that source is traced back to Paul Harris himself. It is just repeated over and over like a mantra said at a High Mass. To summarize, Paul Harris was born in Racine, Wisconsin, and moved to Vermont at age three to live with his grandparents. After graduating from law school he wandered around the world for five years before settling in Chicago and opening his law practice. He had few friends and was very lonely, so he gathered three other close associates and started Rotary. His idea of only allowing one person as a representative of their business or profession was so unique that along with the goal of providing humanitarian service, Rotary soon grew to the international organization it is today.

This is what I was told over twenty years ago when I first joined Rotary. At the time I had little interest in finding out more about this tale and accepted it on faith. I suspect the majority of Rotarians know or are at least familiar with this rendition and do likewise. If anything, the image of Paul Harris leading Rotary in its charitable quest has entered the realm of more myth than fact. This is not to say the Paul Harris “story” is incorrect or wrong but it is very convenient. Just like tales of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have served a purpose in creating a sense of common heritage, so have the adventures of Paul Harris been used to rationalize the goal of worldwide humanitarian and educational service.

Earlier I mentioned the single source for almost every history written about the early days of Rotary came from Paul Harris himself. His first attempt at an autobiography came in 1926 when he authored a series of articles published in the Rotarian magazine. In 1928, Paul used these articles, almost word for word, as the basis for his book, The Founder of Rotary. This relatively short text was a quick description of his early life that briefly touched on the reasons for how and why he established Rotary.

In 1935, he wrote This Rotarian Age which was more of a response to several criticisms directed at Rotary. He did include some observations regarding the establishment
and early philosophies of the movement as he defended his baby from critique. During the late twenties and thirties, he wrote several short booklets and reports to Rotary International outlining his travels for them, which again, contained a few isolated references to his younger days.

It wasn’t until the publication in 1948 of My Road To Rotary, shortly after his death in 1947, did an expanded account of his life and early beginnings of Rotary finally become available. Here, supposedly, was the most accurate and up-to-date telling of the Founder’s life. Once again, Paul combined material from his 1928 publication and either stretched, added to, or changed some of the anecdotes. Interestingly, Paul also drew remembrances from Birney Batcheller’s 1937 compilation called People of Wallingford. Batcheller was a next door neighbor and older playmate of Paul’s who shared many of the same experiences of growing up in Wallingford, Vermont. There are several common themes, narratives, and memories shared between the two authors, that it is hard to separate where Batcheller ends and Paul begins. That is to say, there is little doubt Paul received inspiration from Batcheller’s work.

Other than a few comments regarding Paul’s early association with the Rotary Club of Chicago mentioned in Oren Arnold’s 1966 publication The Golden Strand,
which was an informal attempt at documenting the history of Club Number One, it wasn’t until 1979, when an Englishman named James P. Walsh wrote a book
called The First Rotarian.

Using My Road To Rotary as his main source of information, Walsh added little to Paul’s original tale. As I subsequently found out, many of the details these later authors used did little to question the accuracy of Paul’s assertions. As a result, many of the particulars continued to be accepted as fact and eventually, taken as truth.

It wasn’t until 1984, when another Englishman wrote a slightly different slant on the life and history of Paul Harris. In his work, The Golden Strand, David Shelley Nicholl began the process of comparing the relationship between Paul and his good friend Chesley Perry, who was the long tenured Rotary International Secretary. Nicholl brought to the forefront new ideas, concepts, and combinations regarding Paul and his association with Rotary from 1905 to 1984. The problem with reading Nicholl is that he is prone to flowery hyperbole that is difficult to understand. Again, any reference to Paul’s childhood was drawn from Paul’s own works.

These books represent the bulk of what has been written about Paul Harris, exclusive of the hundreds of individual club interpretations. No American writer has attempted a biography and with rare exception, most quotes about Paul Harris come from these sources.

Not necessarily wanting to follow in the footsteps of others, I began my quest by traveling to Wallingford, Vermont. There I found three major caches of undiscovered information. The Wallingford Historical Society and Town Hall records contained a wealth of material, including the original school records of Paul Harris. This gave me the ability to establish a fairly accurate timeline of when Paul was actually in Wallingford. What these documents indicated differed substantially from what Paul remembered. Also the Town legal documents disclosed a totally unique picture of Paul’s grandparents and their influence not only on Wallingford, but on Paul.

My second surprise occurred when I visited the Rotary Club of Wallingford’s Chapel meeting building which houses thousands of items related to Paul Harris. Among their collection were original portions of the first, second and third drafts of My Road To Rotary, handwritten by Paul himself. It took weeks to translate Paul’s bad script and organize the scattered pieces of this book. Once completed, it revealed accounts about Paul that never have seen the light of day. Most of these remembrances never made it to the final edition of his book. Suddenly, when comparing these papers to the school records, I was able to develop a fair understanding of his time spent in Vermont.

The third piece that fell into place was when I was able to contact Vaughan Griffin, a third cousin of Paul Harris, who still lives in the Wallingford area. He provided me with hundreds of never before published letters written by Paul to his great grandfather Herman Vaughan. In this collection were correspondence written by Paul’s grandmother giving a fresh insight to how some of the family dynamics worked. While most of the letters were written during the late 1930’s and 1940’s, all of them added to a better appreciation of who Paul Harris was and what made him that way.

The puzzle began to make more sense when I was given unrestricted access to the Rotary International Archive files in Chicago. There I found additional parts of original manuscripts, letters, and documents that on the surface appeared disconnected, but when placed against my timeline began to show a new and interesting picture of Paul Harris. I was thankful the Rotary Club of Chicago had placed their archives on line, allowing the general public access via the internet to their records. This helped close the gapes created when comparing the Rotary International trove to theirs.

Other gems where found in the University of Vermont at Burlington archives. These discoveries filled in many of the blanks regarding Paul’s time at UVM and some of his later actions. I was totally amazed at what the probate records of the Howard Harris Trust disclosed when I found them still located in the Rutland County Court building. Or what new insights were gained when I visited Racine, Wisconsin and Jacksonville, Florida. Each stop added to my growing horde of research memorabilia.

All in all, it has been a long and challenging trip to produce a new look at Paul Harris. Now the basic chronicle of Paul’s life does not change much, but what I hope has changed is a new way of understanding his life, stripped of some of the myths or errors that have persisted. It is in no way complete. The records that I had hoped to find, like the private correspondence between Paul and his wife Jean, for example, or letters written by some of the other early leaders like Sylvester Schiele, Harry Ruggles, Ches Perry, etc., that are not on file at Rotary International, have all disappeared.

Paul was a prolific writer. He wrote thousands of letters to Rotarians and friends all over the world. In his later life as an official Ambassador for Rotary, he traveled to most of the continents visiting clubs and spreading the word about what he had established. Along with frequent essays printed in the Rotarian magazine, Paul had several opportunities to express his opinions. I know these documents are out there, and I trust someone, someday, will correct my mistakes.

Some readers might be upset or annoyed at some of my disclosures. For that I apologize. But we must remember that Paul Harris was a living, warm-blooded, caring human being full of goodness and frailties. He was not a saint, but rather a person with worries, desires and dreams like all of us. I do not subscribe to the premise that when confronted with the dilemma of printing the accepted legend or telling the truth-print the legend. Even Paul, when it came to revealing the whole story or telling tales about the history of the movement, was not sympathetic with the idea of consigning the truth to a secret archive.

Only with the facts can we see how far Rotary really has come. Only with the truth can we appreciate the struggles Paul Harris and others made for Rotary to be what it is today. Only with fidelity can we fully understand Paul Harris and the birth of Rotary.
I remain yours in Rotary service,
Fred A. Carvin
September, 2011
“Much has been said that should have been omitted. Much more could have
been related had I been less discreet.” Howard A Glassbrook, April 3, 1943
1 Walsh, James P.; The First Rotarian; Scan Books; 1979; p 293