The Rotary Story

Compiled by Carol Erker for Rotary Club of Longboat Key                                     



Rotary came into being as the idea of a Chicago attorney, Paul Harris, who wanted to create a professional group with the same friendly spirit that he felt in the small towns of his youth in New England – a fellowship composed of businessmen from different occupations and diverse backgrounds who could meet to exchange ideas without restrictions of politics or religion. On February 23, 1905, Paul Harris met with his friends Gustavus Loehr (a mining engineer), Silvester Schiele (a coal dealer), and Hiram Shorey (a merchant tailor) at Loehr’s place of business – this was the first Rotary meeting. Thereafter, they rotated among their respective places of business for their meetings, resulting in the name for their club:  “Rotary.” A printer named Harry Ruggles soon joined the group, and he created the name badge version of the Rotary “wheel.” (He also started singing in Rotary.)


Paul Harris was interested in starting Rotary Clubs in other cities. The second club was started in San Francisco in 1908 by Homer Wood. Wood then organized club #3 in Oakland, #4 in Seattle, and #5 in Los Angeles. Oakland was the first club to have weekly meetings.


By August 1910, there were 16 clubs, and the National Association of Rotary Clubs was organized.

At the 1911 convention in Portland, OR, the slogan, “Service, Not Self” was introduced; it later became “Service Above Self.” Also introduced at that convention was the slogan “He profits most who serves best.”

In 1912, clubs were established in Canada and Great Britain, and the name was changed to the International Association of Rotary Clubs, of which Paul Harris served as president for 2 terms.

In 1912, the first club in Florida was formed in Jacksonville, the 41st Rotary Club.

In 1915, the concept of local Rotary Districts came into being to make the organization easier to manage.

In 1917, the Rotary Foundation was created by the International Association of Rotary Clubs’ 6th president, Arch Klumph, as an endowment fund for Rotary “to do good in the world.” The initial contribution was $26.50. Today the Foundation expends more than $105 million annually.

In 1922, the International Association of Rotary Clubs changed its name to the current Rotary International.

By 1925, Rotary had grown to more than 2000 clubs with an estimated 108,000 members on six continents.

In 1926, the St. Petersburg Rotary Club sponsored the Sarasota Rotary Club, and Tampa sponsored the Bradenton Club.

In 1932, Rotarian Herbert J. Taylor created The Four-Way Test. (See Below)


Paul Harris died in 1947. By that time, his dream had grown from one group of 4 friends to 6000 clubs in 75 countries with 300,000 members brought together through the service and fellowship of Rotary.


In 1987, women were admitted to Rotary membership after the US Supreme Court ruled that Rotary clubs are civic organizations and not private clubs.


Today there are over 31,000 Rotary clubs in 164 countries with over 1.2 million members. There are currently more than 500 districts. Women comprise more than 20% of the membership world-wide.



As noted above, Rotary Districts were created in 1915 to simplify management of the growing organization. Districts are generally comprised of at least 30 clubs and at least 1000 Rotarians. There are currently more than 500 Districts world-wide. We are located in Rotary District 6960, which is comprised of more than 50 clubs in the following counties of Florida: Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto, Charlotte, Glades, Lee, Henry, and Collier.


Districts have officers, with the #1 officer called “District Governor.” After one has served a one-year term as District Governor, he or she is then called a “Past District Governor,” or “PDG.”


Districts often have programs that provide matching grants for their member clubs’ projects, funds that are awarded through an application process. My former district, 6440 in northeastern Illinois, provided 15-25 Vocational Scholarships annually to students who were pursuing non-bachelor’s degree programs. Each of the 72 clubs in the District could propose up to 2 candidates after  completing an application and interview process on the club level; the District’s committee then conducted further interviews and selected the scholarship recipients.


Rotary International supports Districts and Clubs world-wide by coordinating global programs, campaigns, and initiatives.



Rotary’s commitment to “Service Above Self” is channeled through the Five Avenues of Service which form the foundation of club activity:


  1. Club Service focuses on strengthening fellowship and ensuring the smooth functioning of a Rotary club.
  2. Vocational Service involves club members serving others through their professions and promotion of high ethical standards. As business and community leaders, past or current, we share our skills and expertise and inspire others in the process.
  3. Community Service is the opportunity for clubs to implement projects and activities that improve life in the local community.
  4. International Service encompasses efforts to expand Rotary’s humanitarian reach around the world and to promote world understanding and peace.
  5. “New Generations” or “Youth Committee” is the newest Avenue of Service, which recognizes and encourages support of the positive changes implemented by youth and young adults involved in leadership development activities, service projects, and exchange programs that enrich and foster world peace and cultural understanding. (Interact Clubs involve students ages 12 to 18, Rotaract Clubs involve young adults ages 18-30.) Approximately 1100 scholarships are awarded by Rotary Foundation annually, with a new emphasis on the Rotary-created Peace curriculum in place in seven universities around the world.


Often, Rotary Clubs organize themselves by establishing committees for each of these Avenues of Service, with the chairperson of each committee serving on the Club’s Board of Directors.



Rotary’s classification system was established to maintain a vibrant cross-section or representation of the community’s business, vocational and professional interests among a club’s members, and also to develop a pool of resources and expertise to successfully implement the club’s projects. A Rotarian’s classification is the principal business or professional service of the organization for which the Rotarian works or has worked, or the Rotarian’s activity within the organization. Guidelines are in place to prevent any one company or avenue of endeavor from dominating a Rotary Club, to ensure diversity of activity and ideas among its members.



Rotary Foundation is a non-profit corporation created in 1917 that supports the efforts of Rotary International to achieve world understanding and peace through international humanitarian, educational, and cultural exchange programs, funding projects by Rotarians and our partners in communities around the world. 89% of its funds go to its programs, with only 11% going to fund-raising and administration expenses. When Rotary partners with other organizations, we multiply the impact made by either group on its own. From local food banks to global humanitarian organizations, we work with a wide variety of partners, including:


  • Gates Foundation
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Goodwill
  • ShelterBox
  • United Nations
  • World Health Organization



  • In 1985, Rotary International and the Rotary Foundation launched the PolioPlus program to eradicate polio from the world. To date, Rotary has contributed countless volunteer hours and more than $2 billion to fight polio, including matching funds from the Gates Foundation. As a result, more than 2.5 billion children have received the oral vaccine. Polio remains in just 2 countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan; Rotary, CDC and WHO remain determined to wipe it out. We are this close to sending polio the way of smallpox – off the Planet.
  • ShelterBox is a non-profit organization founded in the United Kingdom in 2000 to provide emergency shelter and vital supplies to support communities overwhelmed by disasters and humanitarian crises around the world. Initially, a local Rotary club in the U.K. adopted aid to ShelterBox as a club project. Now, ShelterBox has been designated a Rotary Project Partner, with the Rotary Foundation collaborating and combining resources with ShelterBox, and with local Rotary clubs near the scenes of disasters providing invaluable logistical support in the field. Aid has been provided to victims of more than 230 disasters in over 90 countries, such as tornadoes and hurricanes in the U.S., the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and recent flooding in Bosnia and Serbia.



Started in 1957 to increase giving to The Rotary foundation, Paul Harris Fellow recognition is given to a Rotarian who gives $1000 or more to The Rotary Foundation’s Annual Fund, PolioPlus, or an approved foundation grant, or on whose behalf a $1,000 donation is made. The Rotarian can be recognized as a Multiple Paul Harris Fellow with each additional $1000 gift. Many clubs strive for 100% Paul Harris Fellow membership. To recognize someone else as a Paul Harris Fellow, one can make a gift of $1000 or more in that person’s name/honor. Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, Jonas Salk, and Boris Yeltsin have been recognized in this manner, as have deserving Rotarians, family members and community ‘heroes’ all over the world.


Some Famous Rotarians:

  • Warren G. Harding, U.S. President
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. President
  • Gerald R. Ford, U.S. President
  • John F. Kennedy, U.S. President
  • Woodrow Wilson, U.S. President
  • Sir Winston Churchill
  • Charles H. Mayo, founder of Mayo Clinic
  • Guglielmo Marconi, Italian inventor of wireless radio and Nobel laureate
  • Thomas Mann, German novelist and Nobel laureate
  • Admiral Richard E. Byrd, American Explorer
  • Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senator
  • Neil Armstong and Frank Borman, American astronauts
  • James Cash Penney, founder of JC Penney Co.
  • Sam Walton
  • Thomas Edison
  • Walt Disney
  • Carlos Romulo, UN General Assembly President
  • Orville Wright
  • “The Colonel” Harland Sander


THE FOUR WAY TEST of the things we think, say or do: 


            Is it the TRUTH?


            Is it FAIR to all concerned?


            Will it build GOOD WILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?


            Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?


            Will it be FUN?! (Test added by Rotary Club of Longboat Key)