Rotary was founded in 1905 by a 37-year-old Chicago attorney, Paul Harris (pictured), and three other men. The founder was not always the serious-minded person he is often portrayed to be. In fact, he was expelled from high school for starting a high-spirited “underground society”, and aged 17 from the University of Vermont as well – though this time he was “dobbed in” by the real culprit and later exonerated. After graduating in law in 1891, he spent five years roaming the world as a a reporter, actor, cowboy, seaman, granite salesman, fruit picker and hotel clerk. Only then did he start his successful law practice.
The early Rotary movement has sometimes been described as a little selfish, with an emphasis on mutual support of members’ businesses. More importantly, however, and the main reason why it survived the early years, it put friendship and fellowship in the centre from the outset. And Paul Harris certainly evolved with the times to lead Rotary into the modern era, remaining an inspirational force until his death in 1947.
Early in the life of the movement, Paul Harris proposed the name “Rotary”, because the meeting place originally rotated among members’ premises, and the office of president was proposed to rotate annually (as it still does). The present Rotary gearwheel with its 24 cogs and six spokes became the official emblem in 1923, complete with a “keyway” to demonstrate its engineering usefulness.
In 1910, Paul Harris was elected the first president of the National Association of Rotary Clubs, with 16 clubs. Two years later, the association became international, including a club in Winnipeg, Canada which had been formed in 1910. Dublin, Belfast, Manchester and London followed in the next two years. From then on, the movement snowballed and with it the worldwide organisation now known as Rotary International, and its main fund-raising vehicle, The Rotary Foundation. There are now 1.2 million Rotarians in some 32,000 clubs in more than 200 countries and geographical areas. It is the world’s largest service organisation, and few countries have no Rotary clubs.
Melbourne was the first Australian Rotary Club (1921). It was formed in the same year as the first continental European club (Madrid) and two years after the first Asian club (Manila).
One of the most important events in Rotary’s history occurred in 1989 when membership was opened to women worldwide – after a long lawsuit in America based on equal opportunity grounds. Longer-serving Rotarians can testify that resistance against women in Rotary persisted into the 1990s. Today such resistance has largely subsided, and the organisation is fresher and more progressive than ever before. Our own club gained its first three women in 1999-2000, as part of a record net intake of nine new Rotarians in that year, taking the membership from 16 to 25.
Rotary is a remarkably youthful hundred-year old, not least as a result of Rotary International’s decision to admit women in 1989, coupled with its success with huge projects ranging from the eradication of polio and malaria to disaster relief following earthquakes and tsunamis, and its equally successful local community services.
Australia is a leading Rotary nation and with its basic informality and egalitarian attitude brings a special quality to the organisation. This is particularly true for country areas such as our District 9700, which covers a large part of NSW bordered in the west by Lake Cargelligo and Hay, Henty in the south, Boorowa and Oberon in the east and Bathurst, Molong and Condobolin in the north.