Who would be crazy enough to go to Winnipeg, Canada, in February?! I thought that for many years as I watched my father and his Rotary pals board a bus to Winnipeg. This was a tradition of my Rotary club for years, but had only fairly recently been re-energized by Saint Paul Rotary luminaries such as Bob Johnson, Bob Knox, Dick Grayson, Ken Crabb, Rich Cammack, Andy Keane, John McNulty, Jerry Meigs, and a whole host of others. I think my first foray into the winter tundra was 1997 or so. That was the 79th Annual International Goodwill Meeting. The event started to commemorate the charter of the first Rotary Club outside of the United States. The Saint Paul and Minneapolis clubs, together with Duluth, charted the first club in Winnipeg. The International Goodwill Meeting was truly a grand celebration of U.S. and Canadian relations. Many Rotary International Governors appeared over the years to add to the festivities.
The crowd that Johnson, Grayson, and Knox, et al, re-started was quite lively. That might be an understatement. Rather than the traditional train trip to Winnipeg that the earlier groups had organized, this newer group of hearty Northerners charted a luxury bus for the trip. For the non-politically correct version of this trip I have to use my imagination. I just know that there was a lot of liquor loaded onto the bus and upon their return to Saint Paul, none could drive home from the bus drop off location. Thus, I was the “designated driver” to get some of them the last few miles home. I also know that cards were involved, but it certainly was not poker. Bridge was the game – and they always carried a trophy from year to year, newly inscribed with the latest winner. I have heard stories, but cannot confirm, of some shady movies that may have been played on the television screen on the bus.
II say I can’t confirm activities on the bus because I’ve only heard rumors. Fortunately, a few brave women, including Rotarians Gretchen Dian, Carolyn Brusseau, and Nancy McKillips, made the trek a couple years before my attendance and they were able to clean up the act! I can pretty much attest that EVERYONE who attended the event came back with marvelous stories of the great Canadian hospitality. For a few, this trip became their primary Rotary interest. I figured there must be something beyond the drinks and I can assure you that there definitely is!
My group introduced curlers to the throng of Rotarians from the Twin Cities heading North. Curling had been a part of the International Goodwill Meeting for many decades, but no one had recollection of a contingent from the Saint Paul Rotary Club. The problem for me was that I didn’t know anything about curling! The whole idea started when my Rotarian friends Doug Bruce, Greg Hudalla, and I were spending a late evening around the fire at the Saint Paul Rotary Youth Leadership Conference. We decided it might be fun to see what all the hubbub was about. First, we figured we’d better learn how to curl.
We recruited other members of our club, Al Zdrazil, and later Alan Ruvelson, to join our team. We registered for a league at the Saint Paul Curling Club. Al was the first “skip” for our team since he was the only one who had actually curled before. The skip is the leader who calls the shots, directs the action, and throws the last stone. We were not particularly good, but we had fun. It is my recollection that we lost most of our games, with possibly one or two lucky wins. We especially enjoyed the collegiality among teams. The collegiality included sharing several of pitchers of beer with the opponent after the game.
President’s Day weekend in mid-February was normally the weekend for the International Goodwill Meeting. It correlated to Rotary Founder, Paul Harris’s birthday, rather than the actual founding of the Winnipeg Club. It also gave some South of the Northern border Americans a Monday holiday to recover!
Our first trip to Winnipeg was quite an eye opening and enjoyable experience. What was interesting about it was the structure. Everything about our Club’s and District’s participation in the weekend was scripted in very detailed fashion. Much of this was due to the assiduousness of Rotary Past District Governor Bob Johnson. The planning actually started in late Fall (September, I believe). The planning meeting was a dinner at a local HOA club room. It was called the “Due Diligence” dinner. Dinner with cocktails (of course!) and as we learned, the menu was exactly the same every year:
- Appetizer of cream cheese and chutney with crackers
- Grilled tenderloin steak – at least 2 inches thick
- Caesar salad
- Classic chocolate ice cream bars
- Cabernet Sauvignon wine
After dinner, Bob led the agenda (printed for all). It consisted of providing the dates and times for everything (down to a tee), assigning various tasks and roles, and picking out ideas for our club/district hospitality room. Bob assigned me as “chair” of the event, even though I had not even attended a Goodwill Weekend meeting! It worked out just fine, though, as Bob really ran everything behind the scenes. Interestingly,at the end of the dinner, Bob always seemed to be the one loading the leftover liquor into his car. Ostensibly, this was so he could be sure to “save” it for the next year’s due diligence planning dinner!
Doug and I alternated as chair for several more years and we essentially followed Bob’s script. Our biggest job as “chair” was to arrange for the bus and to recruit attendees. This was actually quite a difficult job since we had to ensure an optimal number of riders on the bus in order to make it relatively affordable, but the bus not too full.
The bus ride had a script as well. I don’t recall all the details now, but Bob gave me a list of the booze to purchase. He seemed to have it all measured by the glass. It seemed like plenty to me, but Bob had his ways. I just didn’t know why the specifics were was so important to him. The packing list also included pickled herring, various condiments (some quite strange), sandwich fixing, and various other snacks. Bob Knox also supplied “real” glassware since he claimed you could not drink a fine cocktail out of plastic!
The bus ride was LONG – about 9+ hours. There was a Bridge game going during the entire trip. The non-bridge players read, chatted, or brought work along for the trip. There was a television on the bus, but I really don’t recall much interest in watching videos. Drinks flowed freely. I finally found out why Bob Johnson was such a stickler for the amount of liquor. As we approached the Canadian border we needed to make sure we did not exceed the limit of alcohol per person crossing the border. Fortunately, that limit did not apply to liquor already imbibed, so the pace of drinking often increased suddenly when we got within about a half-hour of the border.
Arrival at the entrance of the Fort Garry Hotel in downtown Winnipeg was epic! What a grand and historic structure. It is a huge stone building very close to the main Winnipeg train station. It has over 240 guest rooms, a casino, and several HUGE reception rooms. There was more than enough space for a large convention. Just past the main lobby is the circular, formal and ornate cocktail lounge with a high ceiling. It is almost like sitting beneath the dome of a grand cathedral.
I am many paragraphs into this blog and we haven’t even gotten to the main event, the International Goodwill Meeting. Suffice it to say that I learned so much about planning and organization – and people – from the preparation alone. Bob Johnson, for all his faults, was a tremendous influence. His meticulous planning and attention to detail live with me to this day. The meeting itself and all the hijinks will have to wait for my next blog post: Winnipeg, Part II, the International Goodwill Meeting.