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Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Ron Genty, IPP Rotary Club of Eastbourne

During a recent visit to my eldest daughter and family in mid west America, I took the opportunity to accompany my non Rotarian son-in-law on a business trip to Chicago, where I hoped we could include a visit to Rotary International Headquarters at Evanston, some 10 miles north of downtown Chicago.

After a five hour drive from their home in Michigan, taking in a couple of business meetings on the way, we stayed overnight near O’Hare airport.  The next day, Thursday, October 6th, we had a beautiful sunny morning with clear blue sky and a temperature soaring into the high 80s F, as we made our way over to Rotary International Headquarters at 1560, Sherman Avenue.

I had phoned a few days earlier to arrange a tour, so on arrival our guide Amanda was ready and waiting.  Interestingly, in conversation, she mentioned that in her professional life, she was a ‘between parts’ mezzo soprano, who had appeared at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne and was working for RI until something came up.  The RI administration occupies the top three floors of the building (16 to 18).

We were given a fascinating tour of the history of Rotary from 1905 to the present day.  

A life size statue of Paul Harris stands in the reception area and on all floors, the walls displayed many portraits and pictures of past Presidents and other distinguished Rotarians and Rotary events over the past 106 years.  National flags representing every country in which Rotary had a presence, stand in line along one wall; there are souvenirs, gifts and awards made to Paul Harris and other RI Presidents down the years from the many well wishers they met during their worldwide travels.

Archie Klump was also prominently featured as the founder of The Rotary Foundation, along with the many Trustee groups that had served since 1917.

The very first Rotary meeting took place in the office of Gustave Loehr, a mining engineer, on the seventh floor of the Unity Building (Room 711) at 127, North Dearborn Street.  Here on February 23rd, 1905, lawyer Paul Harris met with three business acquaintances; coal dealer Sylvester Schiele, merchant tailor Hiram Shorey and Gus Loehr, to create the world’s first ever Rotary Club.

Chicago’s Rotarians had the foresight to ensure the preservation of the offices of both Paul Harris and Gus Loehr, so when the Unity Building came due for demolition in 1983, they arranged for both rooms to be salvaged and moved to Headquarters.  These two historic rooms, reconstructions of the original offices in the Unity Building, are complete with repro wall décor, original wall panelling, desks, chairs and other fixtures and fittings and personal effects, preserved by Rotarians from the time they were vacated - a great initiative!

Entering each room is like stepping back in time and I felt very privileged to spend a few moments, firstly in Paul’s office where the idea of Rotary was conceived and then in Gus’s office, reflecting on what it must have been like on that evening in 1905 when it all began.

I found it especially moving to be in Gus’s office where those four founder members sat at the first Rotary meeting and Paul outlined his proposals.  In this room, the birthplace of Rotary, I was surrounded by repro painted walls, original panelling, ceiling light, radiators, roll top desk and chair, bookshelf, the simple rectangular table and four chairs used for the meeting, wall clock, hat stand, pedestal telephone, Dictaphone and cheque writing machines, calendar, spittoon and a copy of the Chicago Tribune dated February 23rd, 1905.

At the conclusion of the tour, which lasted about one hour, I thanked our guide Amanda who then asked us to wait a moment.  She had a brief word with Presidential Assistant, Kari and I was then asked if I would like to meet the President - he had a few minutes to spare before leaving to catch a flight and had kindly agreed to see me.

I was surprised and delighted at the invitation as I had never expected to have the opportunity to meet the world President of Rotary.  I was ushered into his office (in short sleeved shirt and no tie) with my son-in-law and camera in tow, to be welcomed by Kalyan Banerjee.  

I gave him greetings from our club and presented him with an Eastbourne club banner.  President Kalyan handed me his personal banner and business card, then asked about Eastbourne - so I explained.  

He impressed me as a gentle man, softly spoken and with a calm disposition and a warm smile.  He mentioned that, in September, he had received a titled visitor from London club, a Lord whose name he couldn’t recall.  I hastened to assure him that I was just an ordinary, everyday Rotarian - no particular title!  

We exchanged a few words about the polio campaign, recruitment and promoting Rotary - he felt that not enough people in our everyday world know about Rotary or recognise what we do and that more should be done to publicise our deeds.  

President Kalyan’s home is in the State of Gujarat, India, and so he was pleased when I mentioned that the Rotary Club of Eastbourne had completed a school project a few years ago in the village of Amreli, in Gujarat.

 I thanked him for taking the time to see me, then a quick photograph, a handshake and ‘farewell’ as he departed.  Afterwards I learned that during the month of August, President Kalyan had been in the UK attending the centenary of the Rotary Club of London, then Nigeria and Ghana.  In September, he was at events in the USA, Brazil and Sri Lanka and in October, he would be travelling to New York, Mexico and then Rome where he was due to meet the Pope - a very busy life!  

Rotary International - History  

After thanking Amanda and Kari for making it possible to meet the President, my son-in-law and I took our leave from 1560 Sherman and an experience I shall long remember with pride.

On our return journey we drove through downtown Chicago, passing the now grassed over plot at 2122, North Clark Street, site of the St Valentine’s Day massacre, February 14th, 1929 and then Wrigley Field, home of Chicago Cubs and the oldest major league baseball field in America.  

Finally, I called at the Union League Club, 65, West Jackson Boulevard, the venue for weekly meetings of Rotary One Club, the first Rotary Club in the world.  

The Life & Times of Paul Harris   

The Union League Club is a private club, allegedly the No.1 business club in America and, unless they are members of the ULC, Rotarians are admitted only on Tuesdays when Rotary One Club meets there at 12.00pm until 1.30pm for lunch in the 5th Floor, Crystal Room.  

Unfortunately, it was Thursday afternoon, and although I had phoned the club member services officer earlier, she apologised that no Rotary One Club members could meet me as access to the ULC was not possible on Thursdays, so apart from viewing the foyer and reception area, with the permission of the concierge, security was very tight and entry to non-members forbidden.  

If I am ever in Chicago again, I’ll try to ensure it’s on a Tuesday!   

So, off we drove between the towering skyscrapers of the city centre, southbound for lunch and the long trip home.     IPP Ron Genty