It was February 23, 1905. The automobile was still evoking cries of “Get a horse!”. The airplane had yet to stay aloft for more that a few minutes, though the Wright brothers had shown a little more that a year earlier that heavier than air flight was possible. The first motion picture theater was soon to open in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a film entitled “ The Great Train Robbery”. The ice cream cone had just appeared on the American scene, and the first concrete cantilever bridge was being built in Marion, Iowa. It was the year Einstein introduced his theory of relativity and James J. Jeffries retired as the world’s heavyweight boxing champion.
In Chicago, Illinois, on this particular February day, four men met in Room 711 of the Unity Building on Dearborn Street. They were Paul P. Harris, a lawyer, Silvester Schiele, a coal dealer, Gustavus E. Loehr, a mining engineer, and Hiram E. Shorey, a merchant tailor. The office of “Gus” Loehr was typical of its time – a small room, not too well lighted, with a desk and four uncomfortable chairs, a coat rack in the corner, one or two pictures and an engineering chart on the wall. They talked about the idea that Paul Harris had been pondering for five years. It was simply this: That business relations could, and should, foster friendly relations They need not, thought Paul Harris, be a barrier to friendship. What kind of men were these that Paul Harris had brought together? The founder of Rotary answered these questions in his book, This Rotarian Age, saying: “In the city by the lake, a drama was to be acted, the importance of which could not be foreseen. The dramatis personae were men of the ordinary walks of life: business and professional men.” “While lacking qualities which would have distinguished them from others of their kind, it may nevertheless be said that they were fairly representative of what in common parlance would have been termed ‘the better element’. They were all natural products of the times and subject to its usual frailties.”
“All were friendly and congenial, and each represented a recognized and honorable vocation different from that of the others. They had been selected without regard to religious, racial or political differences.”
As these men talked that night in Room 711, they saw even more clearly that men in business could be personal friends – and should be. In their discussions of ways to foster such business/social relations, they decided, in agreement with Paul Harris, that the formation of the club might best serve their aims.
Though they didn’t decide there and then to call it a Rotary Club, that meeting on the night of February 23, 1905 was the first meeting of the world’s first Rotary Club. The next day, a fifth member joined the group, having been invited to do so by Paul Harris. He was Harry Ruggles, a printer. He, in turn, interested a real estate dealer named Will Jenson. It was Ruggles who, at an early meeting one evening, jumped on a chair and shouted, “Let’s sing”! He liked to sing and it was his infectious enthusiasm for it that started the Rotary Clubs which today make singing part of their weekly program. Soon after Ruggles and Jenson came in, the organization of the new Club was completed at a meeting in Schiele’s office. The first president was Schiele, with Jenson as corresponding secretary, Shorey as recording secretary and Ruggles as treasurer.
Paul Harris modestly declined to accept any office in the new Club at that time. In fact, it was not until 1907 that Harris was elected president of the Rotary Club of Chicago. The name “Rotary” was chosen at one of the early meetings, its proposer being Paul Harris, who pointed out that the word aptly conveyed the original plan of the members to meet “in rotation” at their various places of business.
With the name decided upon, Montague M. Bear, an engraver who had joined the Club, thought it was time to have an emblem. He came up with a sketch of a plain wagon wheel, a rotating symbol that won full approval. Today, “Monty” Bear’s wheel, though much changed in design, has hundreds of thousands of descendants in the form of the familiar cogwheel em- blem on the lapels of Rotarians across the world. The first printed roster of the Rotary Club of Chicago had 19 members, but at the end of 1905 there were 30 members. Paul Harris later wrote of these first members: “There were no drones in the 1905 group. Every one was interested and busy. Practically every member contributed some one or more serviceable ideas”. Several of these ideas are in operation today; for example the midday meeting, the practice of using photographs in rosters, the presentation of papers on vocational service subjects, and many others.
So began Rotary in the early 1900’s in the pioneer town of Chicago.Certainly, no Rotarian of 1905 ever dreamed that the idea set in motion in that Chicago office would some day be accepted by men and women around the world. Five years after Rotary’s birth, there were 16 Rotary Clubs and approximately 1,500 Rotarians. Within that same period, the organization became international with the formation of a Club in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1910. The first Rotary Convention was held in the Congress Hotel of Chicago in August, 1910. The National Association of Rotary Clubs was organized at that time with all 16 Clubs in membership. The following year, Clubs were organized in Ireland and England, and Rotary was on its global way. In 1912, the name was changed to International Association of Rotary Clubs. In 1916, the first Rotary Club in Ibero-America was functioning in Havana, Cuba; in 1919, the first in Asia in Manila, Philippines; in 1920, the first in continental Europe in Madrid, Spain; in 1921 the first in Africa in Johannesburg, Republic of South Af- rica; and in 1921, the first in Australia in Melbourne. The name Rotary International was adopted in 1922. Today, Rotary spans six continents with Clubs in more than eightscore countries. (as taken from the Rotary Club of Hanalei Bay)