My Rotary Journey – the Beginning

As indicated in my last post, it was not my decision to join Rotary. I think I wanted to follow my own path rather than follow that of my father and grandfather. I was already a lawyer working for my dad, so I figured that was enough. As the years have gone by, my Rotary experience has been far different than either my dad or grandpa. I’ve been a member of four different Rotary clubs and two Districts. That alone gave me a much broader perpective of Rotary. I have been more involved in Rotary International, such as Youth Exchange, attending meetings abroad, being involved in District leadership, and attending multiple Rotary International Conventions.

That said, I have similar experiences to my dad and almost every Rotarian. That means enjoying the fellowship of other Rotarians; celebrating the successes of Rotary’s PolioPlus effort to eradicate Polio; participating in club projects in the local community; and just being a part of a community with similar values of truth, fairness, integrity, action, goodwill, friendship, diversity, mutual respect, leadership development, philanthropy, fun, and fellowship. Nearly all of my Rotary experiences have been positive, but like any endeavor, I’ve run into a few Rotarians who forgot the hallmarks of Rotary’s Four-Way Test. For a Rotarian, the Four-Way Test is the cornerstone of all action. Of the things we think, say or do:

Is it the TRUTH?

Is it FAIR to all concerned?

Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?

Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

It is amazing to associate with a group of people where almost everyone has the same basic ethical values. I find that to be one of the best aspects of Rotary. My first – and current – club is one of the oldest clubs in the Rotary World. There are currently somewhere over 35,000 Rotary Club worldwide and the Saint Paul Rotary Club was established in 1910 as Club #10. Over the past 30 years, it has ranged in size from around 100 members to well over 250. I used to explain to non-Rotarians one of the best benefits to the club – if I need a lawyer, there is one (or more) in the club; if I need a realtor, there is one or more in the club; if I need an auto mechanic, there is one or more in the club. Mortician, doctor, dentist, accountant, architect, property manager, pastor, opthomalogist, stock broker, veterinarian, educator, banker, travel agent, insurance agent, dry cleaner, entrepeneur, pig farmer, jeweler, manufacturer(s), caterers, College President, city mayor, publisher, printer, graphic designer, florist, moving & storage, librarian, historian, newspaper, Scouting representative, picture framer, auto dealer, beer brewer, advertising executive, chamber of commerce, and a whole host of non-profit businesses and services, there is one in the club. It is like an Angie’s List on steroids – and all hold the same basic values.

Almost all of my best friends are Rotarians. I guess it is just natural for people to associate with like-minded people. Yes, there is great diversity across many demographic and political characteristics, but all are united around the common theme of the Rotary motto, “Service Above Self” and the aforementioned Four-Way Test. This was not always the case, but for many years, Rotary International has led in diversity, even before it became commonplace. That is because Rotary is truly and International organization. We have members across the globe. An International Rotary Convention is a veritable smorgasbord of people and cultures, many wearing their traditional/cultural attire. All share a common ethic and a strong desire to make the world – and their own communities – better. We don’t just pine for that, but we get our hands dirty to make it happen.

Okay, I think I’ve rambled on long enough about some positive aspects of Rotary. It was not my intent to have an entire blog about this, but rather, to talk about my experience in Rotary and how that has impacted my life, so here goes:

As I think back, I had a rather typical beginning in Rotary. I attended meeting regularly. In those days, members HAD to show up. There was competition among members for the longest streak of 100% attendance. The leaders were often in decades, not months or years. I knew very few of the members and was one of the younges members in the club. I latched on to Doug Bruce, a stockbroker about my age, but there were few others. Everyone knew my dad, so that was always a topic of conversation. Many expected me to be as gregarious as he was. Perhaps I am in some ways, but in as much of an outgoing way. As a result, it really took me a long time until I felt like I fit in. It was even longer before I truly felt I was a Rotarian.

I volunteered on projects as I could. At the time, I had young children, so could not do as much as I would have liked. The first project I really dug into was a gardening project in downtown St. Paul. It was called the Cleveland Circle Project. Cleveland Circle was at the point of several well-traveled routes into the city. It was an intersection of roads directly in front of the St. Paul Civic Center, which is now the Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild hockey club (and yes, the Wild does have a Rotary member). The Rotary Club of Saint Paul was “deeded” four plots around the intersection to be used as flower beds. Rotarians planted the plots every Spring and kept the beds weeded throughout the Summer. I think I volunteered for weeding once, and was thereafter personally called each successive session. After about a year of this, I suddenly found myself as the Chair of the Cleveland Circle committee.

I had little idea of what I had undertaken. The previous chair provided very good instructions on the logistics, but less about recruiting volunteers. I put a notice in the club bulletin and made an announcement at a weekly meeting about our upcoming tilling and planting effort. At that time, I had little idea what gardening was all about, so following the previous year’s instructions, I rented a gas-powered tiller. I showed up early on a Saturday morning with the tiller and had to figure out by myself how to work it. It is a wonder I didn’t lose a limb! As the morning moved on, the hot coffee became cold – and the doughnuts were not much better. No one showed up to help! Nada. These were big gardens – four of them – and I was on my own.

Even before starting the tiller, though, I had to clean the gardens after a Winter of neglect. As you can imagine, there was quite a bit of garbage that had accumulated over the Winter. It wasn’t only fast food wrappers, but condoms, hypodermic needles, and more weird stuff than you would expect. Sometime near 10:30AM, a couple of Rotarians showed up, one of whom actually knew what he was doing with the tiller. He stayed until we finished all four plots. I’d been there since 8AM and it we finally finished sometime after 1PM! This was untenable unless I was able to recruit volunteers.

I had learned my first lesson of Rotary – Rotarians were more than willing to help, but they must be personally asked. Sometimes it takes multiple asks. The Cleveland Circle planting was supposed to take place the following Saturday. I knew I couldn’t call all 200 Rotarians to ask, so I tried the next best thing: made a fool of myself! That was something I didn’t need any training on. I got up in front of the membership on Tuesday and sang. I don’t do Kareoke and have rarely been noted for my singing voice. It took all the courage I had, but I walked up to the podium asked for volunteers by singing a request to the tune of “Day-O.”

“Day-O, Saturday-O, Rotarians are goin’ out and we’re gonna plant flowers . . . .”

Yes, I also made some calls. By the time Saturday rolled around, we had a good sized crew. With sufficient volunteers, the task of four large beds was actually pretty easy. I was able to direct and supervise rather than actually do ALL the work myself. Lesson 1 of Rotary learned! The rest of the year went pretty well. I think I was chair of the Cleveland Circle project for at least a couple of years before turning it over to someone new. I learned a lot about Rotarians and became more than just a mere member. Lesson 2: if you want to feel part of the club, you need to get involved. The more, the better. Also, it never hurts to make fun of yourself every once in a while!

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