A History of Rotary

A whimsical view by Cliff Dochterman

Originally presented by Past RI President Cliff Dochterman (1992-93) to an audience at the Birmingham Convention 2009.
When did Rotary really start?

Now, the earliest account of Rotary goes back to early Greece in the year 500 BC when a luncheon club was formed by three guys named Escules, Socules and Euripides. Rotarians never used their last names. The Rotary club didn't start out as a luncheon club and frankly, it was a supper club, with an early cocktail hour. In Greece all the best people in the world knew a good thing when they saw it, though all the wealthy men in the baths belonged to the Rotary club back then. Their District Conference, which was held at the Parthenon, was the highlight of the social season there in Greece. Oh, they danced to the best band in the land led by Oedipus Rex, "Fling and flex with Oedipus Rex", was his motto. Actually it was in Athens that they developed the symbol of the Rotary wheel. It seemed like there was this fellow named Nick, who came to the Rotary club meeting. He had been struck in the head by a passing chariot on the way to the Rotary dinner at the Motel 6. When he finally arrived at the meeting, he had that run down look and actually, the imprint of the chariot was still on his forehead and so all the good natured Rotarians had so much fun of kidding at Nick, that they adopted the Rotary wheel, just to preserve the memory of old Nick.
And then the second Rotary club was formed, as you all know, in Rome, the changeover meeting, the kick out meeting, of the Rome club was also considered the best meeting of the year. It was held in the Colosseum. They say it was a touching sight to watch the lions rush at the Past President. And one of the stunts of the Birthday Committee, of the Rome club, was they always had fun on the birthday days. One occasion, during the presidency of Julius Caesar - they just called him Julie, occured when the Sergeant at Arms, a guy whose name was Brutus, entered the room with a large birthday cake, you know. It was covered with flaming candles, because even then the average age of a Rotarian was 84, and the excitement of singing, "Happy birthday dear fellows", caused the cake to tip over and the candles lit some of the togas of some of the Rotarians sitting around the tables and some of the flames spread into some of the banners hanging along the walls and the room was engulfed in flame. But President Julie, he was a man of his word, and he was always a precise fellow and he noticed it was time for the evening program, and fortuitously they had engaged a musical program that evening, a young violinist named Nero and he fiddled, in spite of the flaming walls of the Rome Hilton. Young Nero proceeded to fiddle until 7 o'clock sharp. Well, you can imagine the whole town was burned up about this and Rotary was forced to flee to the west.

Now, we next found that Rotary was in France, Napoleon was a Rotarian for a number of years. He belonged to the Waterloo club. He had the classification of "Past Service". As you know, it was in France that we saw the first women in Rotary. Well, it didn't start out that way. We had this fellow called Jack of Arc. He was a cross-dresser, and when the Rotarians found out that Jack was really a woman named Joan, they took swift action. They ceremoniously removed her from the Rotary club during the club's annual barbeque.

And then legend tells us that Christopher Columbus was a Rotarian. He was the Inter-city Chairman of the Venice club. One day Chris took a boat trip to the west, missed four meetings in a row, and they threw him out of Rotary. And Moses, too was a Rotarian. He was the guy who created the "Four Way Test". He took those tablets and went up there in those hills. When he came back he had these ten commandments. Rotarians could never remember ten of them, so they settled for four and that's how we got that "Four Way Test" thing.

And most of you know that Rotary got started in Great Britain, and how you got that RIBI thing. Well, it wasn't an organisational structure to start out with. The Rotarians in Great Britain developed this slogan, "Rotary is better in Great Britain". And as the years passed, they just used the acronym RIBIB. Then the Scots got in the act. They thought you could save a penny if you dropped the last B off the end. So, that's how they dropped Britain off the end and everybody knows "Rotary is better in".
Actually, as you know, RIBI today stands for Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland.
We had a lot of good leaders in the past. The Johns and the Georges and the Edwards and all the other great Rotarians, and of course you know Bill Shakespeare was a club Secretary. He kept the attendance records for all the clubs there. Oh, I can hear him calling them now, calling the attendance record, "Romeo, Romeo, where art thou?", and they would all report in if they were there or not.

And all the Districts in RIBI used to have this big fair. They had this great big parade at the fair and there was this competition among all the Districts in RIBI. It was a great occasion. All the Past District Governors were the ones that judged the best prize. And year after year, the equestrian entry from the Inner Wheel in Coventry won the prize, year after year. Those Inner Wheel girls from Coventry, they won the prize blue ribbon every year. It was easy judging too, for those past Governors.
Rotary in England had a lot of original ideas. They had that first Manual of Procedure. It was a big book. I think they called it the Magna Carta. Then they had an extension program. They took Rotary to Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand. Well they didn't call them districts in those times, they just called them colonies. Then history shows us that Rotary soon got a good start in Ireland. It was just about this time they were having the Boer War and Ireland had some of the biggest boers in the country.

I hear you ask, who brought Rotary to the United States? Well, the Pilgrim Fathers did, no less. They had all been members of the Rotary club in London, until their club President, they called Big Ben, classification, "Watch Maker", oppressed the members with such cruel and unusual fines that they decided to form a new club over there in the New World. So the Pilgrim Fathers sneaked in a copy of the "ABC's of Rotary", and set out across the Atlantic after getting a good price on a Hertz Rent-a-Boat.
Well, Rotary has been proud of our record of high attendance. Well I remember stories told of a fellow called Paul Revere. Paul Revere, classification, "Lantern Lighter". History shows us how Paul Revere rode furiously from village to town. I can tell you he wasn't interested in any revolutionary war. He was trying to get 12 make-up meetings in one day.

Now George Washington was a Rotarian of great distinction. There was an old saying of George, "First in war, first in peace, first to be an early leaver". Old George was the Service Chairman of the Mount Vernon club. George was the chairman of the Tea Party they held there in Boston, part of the District Conference they held there. I know the British were pretty pleased that he took that leadership job too. Well George had a friend named Betsy Ross. She made up the first Rotary flag. Betsy was a dress maker. She had lots of these scraps of cloth laying around the floor, so she started making up these little Rotary banners, and then she sold the idea to Russell Hampton.
There was this fellow, had a "Boat Building" classification, named Noah. Noah was the guy that changed the whole classification system. Noah thought there ought to be two from each classification. I remember Simon Cowell, he was in charge of Brotherhood Week, then they brought in women to Rotary. Oh, they brought in so much, why I remember Elizabeth Taylor. She had the classification of "Housekeeper". She was divorced eight times and kept the house every time. We had Estee Lauder. She had this idea of Rotary make-up, and Scarlet O'Hara. She started this idea of serving Southern Fried Chicken at every Rotary meal, and Margaret Thatcher had some job, maybe it was District Governor or something. Now, Susan Boyle, she led the song for all of the Convention. And Bill Clinton's friend Monica Lewinsky, she headed the Fellowship Committee - I don't seem to remember her classification.

I remember some other active members, like Robin Hood and Jesse James. They were fund raisers for the Rotary Foundation. You might recall the Robin Hood Fellows. And interesting that Rotary policy came out of England in the early days. You know that Rotary Foundation has a prohibition against construction jobs. The Rotary Foundation Trustees went down to the Rotary Club of Stonehenge and looked at the building project. From then on they said, "No construction grants given."
One of the fascinating things about Rotary has been our Presidential Themes. These are themes that have lasted through the century. Funny, how some of them catch on. Even today you see some of the great Rotary themes we have like, "Stay off the Grass", "Watch for falling Rocks". Probably the most popular Presidential theme was, "Have a nice Day", or maybe, "Honk if you love Paul Harris".
Past RI President Cliff Dochterman (1992-93)
Although I gave this speech at the Birmingham Convention, it is a speech which I first developed about 50 years ago to present to a District Conference. It is one of my 23 favorite speeches, which I included in my book, “As I Was Saying,” which was published a few years ago. That book, of course, is copyrighted, and may be secured from Amazon Books.
However, I give you permission to reprint it, if there is reference to the fact that it is published in “As I Was Saying” by Cliff Dochterman.

Best regards,
Cliff Dochterman 20th September 2013

The trancript of the article wa taken from teh original video recording available here.