“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” U.S. anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, then adding, “Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Changing the world, however, was hardly uppermost in the mind of Paul Harris when he founded Rotary. The young lawyer from rural New England, USA was having a hard enough time adjusting to the industrial swagger of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Business boomed, but the “Windy City”, as it is popularly known, was a storm center of labor unrest. Chicago’s boundaries spread like oil on a rain-slickened street, barely able to keep pace with the exploding population. Life in the rough-and-tumble metropolis was fast paced but lonely. As Paul lamented soon after his arrival, “People were everywhere, but nowhere was a friend.”
Determined to overcome his feeling of alienation, Paul contacted three acquaintances to discuss an idea he had been thinking about for some time. They agreed to meet on the evening of February 23rd, 1905 in the office of one of the three, Gustavus E. Loehr, a mining engineer. The other two men were coal dealer Silvester Schiele and merchant tailor Hiram Shorey. What did they think about getting together regularly to share friendship, Paul wanted to know, and expanding their circle of business and professional acquaintances?
The group thought the idea had great merit. They continued to meet at Gus Loehr’s office in room 711 of the Unity Building at 127 North Dearborn Street. Soon, however, the four decided to “rotate” their meetings at each other’s offices. they settled upon “Rotary” as a natural name for the fledgling group and “Rotarians” for its members.
Rotary’s founders extended an invitation to printer Harry Ruggles to join their ranks, and after he did so, the five men formally organized as the Rotary Club of Chicago. Before long, however, the Rotarians realized that fellowship and mutual self-interest were not enough to keep a club of busy professionals meeting each week. Reaching out to improve the lives of the less fortunate proved to be an even more powerful motivation. “Service Above Self” became Rotary’s motto. And as membership grew, the meetings shifted from Rotarians’ offices to hotels and restaurants, where many are held today.
In 1907, the Chicago club undertook its first Community Service project – erecting a public comfort station near city hall. News of the organization spread and the idea of service won ready acceptance everywhere it was introduced.