TODAY in HISTORY: The World’s First Service Club

Above, the cover of the February 1917 edition of The Rotarian magazine featuring Paul Harris.

by William “Doc” Halliday

When I first moved to Marshall, TX, I was asked if I wanted to become involved in the community.  I said that I did, and almost in the blink of an eye I was involved in it.  The first step was to join the Rotary Club of Marshall.

If you are not familiar, Rotary clubs are voluntary, non-profit service organizations, where members meet to perform charitable or humanitarian acts either by direct hands-on efforts or by raising money for worthy causes.

I soon found that there was much more than raising money and doing charitable acts. Rotary is a great organization for networking and participating in social events.

On Feb. 23, 1905, 112 years ago today, Harris and others including coal dealer Silvester Schiele; mining engineer Gustavus Loehr, and a man named Hiram Shorey gathered for a meeting. It was then that they formed the Rotary Club of Chicago, the world’s first service club.

Let me rewind to the year 1868. Paul Percy Harris, was born in Racine, WI in April of that year. His name will be mentioned again, because he became synonymous with Rotary Clubs all over the world.

At the age of just three, Harris was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in Vermont, after his parents could no longer financially care for him.

He briefly attended the famous Black River Academy in Ludlow, but was expelled.  He was also in trouble in his secondary school in Rutland where he was known as a student who was fond of playing pranks.  Paul entered the University of Vermont in 1886, but was expelled.  In the autumn of 1887 he entered Princeton University and completed one year of studies.  He did not return to the school due to the death of his grandfather.

Mr. Harris moved to Des Moines, IA and went to work for a law firm there as an apprentice.  He studied at the University of Iowa and was granted a bachelor of laws degree in 1891.  For the next five years he worked odd jobs, finally settling in Chicago in 1896 where he began practicing law in the city’s business district. Harris had apparently satisfied his desire for newspaper reporting and cow poking which he was doing prior.

On Feb. 23, 1905, 112 years ago today, Harris, coal dealer Silvester Schiele; mining engineer Gustavus Loehr, and a man named Hiram Shorey gathered for a meeting. The men had lunch in Loehr’s office in Room 711 of the Unity Building in downtown Chicago.  At that meeting, they formed the Rotary Club of Chicago, the world’s first service club.

Harris formed the Rotary Club so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas, form meaningful, lifelong friendships, and give back to their communities.  While Harris is credited with founding the organization, It was Schiele that was the first President of the club.  Harry L. Ruggles who is often called the “fifth Rotarian,” joined Rotary at the second meeting of the club.

In 1907, Harris became the third President of the Rotary Club of Chicago.  During his tenure as President, the club initiated its first public service project, which was the construction of public toilets in Chicago. It was this project that transformed Rotary into the world’s first Service Club.  During his term as the President of the club, Harris worked to expand Rotary beyond Chicago. Some club members resisted, but Harris persisted and by 1910 Rotary had expanded to several other major U.S. cities. The first donation to the Rotary Foundation was made one hundred years ago in 1917.  The amount of that initial donation was $26.50.  In 1957, the Paul Harris Fellow program was established to honor individuals who contribute, or who have contributions made in their name, of $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International.  The award shows appreciation for contributions that support the Rotary Annual Fund, PolioPlus, or an approved Foundation grant.  I am a Paul Harris Fellow through the generosity of others.

Rotary joined the fight against polio in 1979 with a project to immunize 6 million children in the Philippines.  In 1985, Rotary launched its PolioPlus program, the first initiative to tackle global polio eradication through the mass vaccination of children. Today, with the help of Rotary’s PolioPlus campaign, polio remains endemic in only three countries — down from 125 in 1988.  In 2016, there were 37 cases of Wild Poliovirus infecting individuals in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.  As of Feb. 15, 2017, there has been only one case of Wild Poliovirus so far this calendar year.

My club will celebrate its 100 year anniversary in June of 2019.

Historian and Political Writer William “Doc” Halliday can be contacted at .



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