My Rotary Journey – the Seeds

I have been a member of Rotary for nearly 30 years. Hard to believe, but Rotary has actually been a part of my life much longer than that. My first memories of Rotary were asking my grandfather (Papa) about his Rotary pin that he dutifully wore on his lapel every day. I also remember accompanying him on occasion to special Rotary meetings at the Saint Paul Athletic Club. These were quite formal affairs in a giant ballroom with well over 300 men in attendance. These particular meetings were set aside for members to bring their children or grandchildren to the club.

Nearly every major business in town was represented at the meetings. Most of the time it was the CEO or President of each company. Though there were over 300 members at the time, membership in the Saint Paul Rotary Club was still quite exclusive. My grandfather was the retired President of Western Fruit Express, a subsidiary of the Great Northern Railway. For a young kid, this was high society. The meetings generally kicked off with a gathering of cigar, pipe, and cigarette smokers around the bar about an hour prior to the meeting. My granfather smoked cigars, but I have little recollection of him drinking much. Anyway, because he had my sister Pam and I in tow, he avoided that part of the meeting whenever we joined him.

It was MUCH later that my father got involved in Rotary. He had become a well-established lawyer in Saint Paul and was active in many volunteer and social activities in town. He had been active in the Ramsey County Bar association, taught at the University of Minnesota, and was President of the Saint Paul (later Ramsey County) Humane Society for many years. It was in the latter role that he became friends with Dr. Jim Olin, a veterinarian who was longtime Rotarian in Saint Paul. Jim was a past president of the Saint Paul Rotary Club and past District Governor of the Rotary District. You would think that between Jim and my grandfather that my dad would be a shoo-in for membership. You would be wrong!

One of the Charter Members of the Saint Paul Rotary Club was a lawywer named William H. (Bill) Oppenheimer. The Oppenheimer Law Firm is now a nationwide firm and has always been a big player in the Twin Cities legal market. They maintained a strong presence in the Saint Paul Rotary Club and used their influence to exclude any other lawyers from the club. One of the early tenets of Rotary was to have a wide range of vocations, so it was very common to have only one Doctor, one Lawyer, one Stock Broker, one Insurance Company, one Funeral Director, etc. As a result, even though there were many members, it was still quite difficult to gain entry into the club. That is changed now, but it served to exclude many otherwise good members over the years.

After my Dad had been rejected numerous times, Jim Olin had an idea. Each time that my dad had applied, he had to provide the area of law that he practiced. Each time, the Oppenheimer member would state to the membership committee, “we do that” and objected to the application. All it took was an objection from a current member to exclude a new member in the same vocational category. Finally, Jim presented my dad’s application as “Attorney – Mortuary Law.” Upon reviewing the application, Oppenheimer looked up and said, “What the heck is that?” Jim replied, “Well, it looks like you don’t do it!” With that, the committee approved my dad’s membership!

Because of his many connections in the club, my dad became active in Rotary very quickly. We participated in many events as a family. One of the most worthwhile projects was getting involved in Youth Exchange. This necessitated the entire family getting involved since we hosted high school students from Honduras and Japan – a boy and a girl. Each stayed with us for approximately three months. Jose’ was the first. Since he was a boy and close to my age, I became responsible for him. He went just about everywhere with me. He liked school and was somewhat of a novelty. He definitely enjoyed that, especially the attention of the girls! He didn’t like my job nearly as much. At the time, I had a paper route. I got up very early EVERY day. Jose’ stayed with us in the middle of the winter and HATED trudging through the snow with me. Many times he failed to join me, but most of the time he did.

Yoko was our second exchange student. As a girl, she was Pam’s responsibility. Like with Jose’, we learned a lot about a culture different from ours. Unlike Jose’, who basically followed the rules, Yoko quickly took to the new freedom that she found in the United States. For her, that meant dating, something she was not allowed to do at home. Serious dating was also contrary to the rules of Rotary Youth Exchange. Yoko knew her steady boyfriend was a clear violation of the rules, but she persisted anyway. As much as we tried, we could not get her to tow the line. She became secretive about it and started to disassociate with Pam and our family. It was about this time that she moved on to another family. I think the Rotary counselor got involved – and ultimately threatened to send her home early – but she did finish out the year. I don’t know if she gave up the boyfriend, but at least she figured out it had to come to an end soon anyway.

That was not the end of Rotary Youth Exchange for the Grayson family. My sister Pam spent a year in South Africa in 1979-1980 and brother Jon followed her footsteps a few years later. His was a year with Rotary Youth Exchange in Birmingham, England. Strangely enough, I did not participate in Youth Exchange for a multitude of reasons, but I did spend an extended weekend at Camp Enterprise, hosted by the Edina Rotary Club. Even though it was a short event, Camp Enterprise had a huge impact on me and directly led to my interest in public speaking and politics. MUCH later, I became involved in Rotary Youth Exchange again, but that is a story for another day.

After a long time as an an active member, my dad was offered the opportunity to “run” for President of the club. In those days, the office was much more competitive than it is now, which often led to hotly contested elections. Dad lost to Bob Johnson, who went on to become an influential District Governor after his term as President. It was shortly after that election that the Saint Paul Rotary Club changed its procedures and nominated a slate of officers, with only a confirmation “vote” by the entire membership. It was under these new rules that Dad finally became President. While he was one of the first presidents elected by a committee rather than the general membership, it was not without issues. Dad was hugely popular in many circles, but less so in others. Keep in mind that this was the late 1980s and women had just been admitted into Rotary in 1978. Things were changing and Dad wasn’t changing fast enough!

My father almost became the first Saint Paul Rotary President to be impeached. As most Presidents do, Dad added some personal touches to the weekly agenda. The one that led to problems was his practice to start each meeting with a story or a joke. Unfortunately, being “old school,” many of Dad’s stories were off-color. In his defense, he had jokes that offended everyone, so there was definitely no intentional targeting, bias, or discrimination. I don’t know the story that was the tipping point, but I can venture a guess based upon his repitore. A number of prominent women in the club lodged complaints. It wasn’t until other women, including future Club President Carolyn Brusseau, stepped in to mediate, that the office was saved. Dad toned down his act and eliminated most jokes, but he survived the year.

I formally became involved in Rotary in 1993 after joining my father in his law practice. I really had no intention joining, but one day my Dad dropped an application form on my desk and told me to fill it out and get it back to him. I don’t think I ever completed the application – I was worried about the cost of membership – but several weeks later I received a letter from the Saint Paul Rotary Club informing me that my application had been approved. When I protested to Dad, he told me that the firm would take care of my membership. So, that was truly the beginning. Everything before that was just a prelude to the journey that I was about to embark on. Rotary has provided me so many mentors and friends over the years. Even though it wasn’t my idea, Rotary has greatly impacted my life. More about my personal Rotary story in my next blog!

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