Paul Harris. Rotary’s Founder
Rotary started with the vision of one man — Paul P. Harris.
Paul Harris at age 3, around the time he moved to his grandparents’ home.
Harris, born on April 19, 1868, originally hails from Racine, Wisconsin, USA. When he was just 3 years old, he relocated to Wallingford, Vermont, under the guardianship of his paternal grandparents. His formative years were spent in Wallingford. Harris pursued higher education at the University of Vermont and Princeton University. In 1891, he obtained his law degree from the University of Iowa.
In 1896, Harris established himself in Chicago and inaugurated his own law firm. After four years, he had a fortuitous encounter with Bob Frank, a fellow attorney, during a dinner outing on the North Side of Chicago. As they strolled through the neighborhood, they made occasional stops at various shops. Harris noticed with admiration that Frank had developed friendly relationships with many of the shopkeepers. This sense of camaraderie among businessmen resonated deeply with Harris, evoking memories of his upbringing in Wallingford. It sparked his curiosity and led him to contemplate if there was a way to harness and foster such connections in the bustling city of Chicago.
“The idea continued to linger that my own experience was not unique, but rather a shared one among countless individuals in the vast city. I strongly believed that there must be numerous young men who, like me, had left behind their rural origins and ventured to Chicago to make their mark. The thought arose: why not unite them? If there were others yearning for a sense of community and connection as I did, surely something meaningful would arise from it.
Over time, Harris managed to convince a few of his business associates to engage in discussions about establishing an organization aimed at bringing together professionals in the area. On February 23, 1905, Harris, along with Gustavus Loehr, Silvester Schiele, and Hiram Shorey, assembled at Loehr’s office located in downtown Chicago. Little did they know that this gathering would mark the inception of what would later be recognized as the inaugural Rotary club meeting.
By February 1907, Harris secured the position of the third president of the Rotary Club of Chicago. As his presidency drew to a close, he dedicated his efforts to extend Rotary’s reach beyond the confines of the city. However, this endeavor encountered resistance from certain club members who were apprehensive about assuming additional financial responsibilities. Nonetheless, Harris remained determined and unwavering in his pursuit. By 1910, his persistence paid off, and Rotary successfully expanded its presence to several prominent cities across the United State.
Harris discerned the necessity of establishing a national association with a governing executive board. In August 1910, Rotarians congregated in Chicago for their inaugural national convention, where the 16 existing clubs united under the banner of the National Association of Rotary Clubs, which is now recognized as Rotary International. Harris, being widely respected, was unanimously elected as the president of this newly formed association.
Upon the completion of his second term as Rotary president, Harris made the decision to step down, attributing it to his declining health and the increasing demands placed upon him by his professional commitments and personal obligations. In recognition of his invaluable contributions, convention action bestowed upon him the esteemed title of president emeritus, a position he held until his passing.
- Read about the education of Paul Harris
During the mid-1920s, Harris reengaged with Rotary in a proactive manner, assuming the role of the organization’s prominent public figure. With a focus on advancing membership and promoting service, he dedicated himself to attending conventions and visiting Rotary clubs across the globe. Frequently accompanied by his wife, Jean, Harris traveled extensively, serving as a compelling advocate for Rotary’s mission and values.
On January 27, 1947, Harris passed away in Chicago at the age of 78, following an extended period of illness. Prior to his demise, he expressed his desire for memorial contributions to be directed towards The Rotary Foundation, rather than floral tributes. Coincidentally, just days before his passing, Rotary leaders had already pledged their commitment to a significant fundraising endeavor for the Foundation, further highlighting the profound alignment between Harris’s wishes and the collective efforts of the organization.
Following the news of Harris’s passing, Rotary swiftly established the Paul Harris Memorial Fund as a means to collect donations in his honor. Rotarians were urged to commemorate the esteemed founder of Rotary by contributing to this fund, with the assurance that the funds would be utilized for causes that held deep significance to Harris. In the 18 months that followed his demise, The Rotary Foundation received a remarkable sum of $1.3 million through this initiative. These generous contributions played a pivotal role in supporting the Foundation’s inaugural program, which focused on providing scholarships for graduate study abroad.