My Rotary Journey – Winnipeg Part II, the International Goodwill Meeting a/k/a, “On to Winnipeg!”

The traditional trip to Winnipeg started on a Friday. The bus ride was really the kick-off for the Saint Paul and Rotary District 5620 attendees, though there were almost always others who either flew or otherwise found their own transportation. The luxury bus arrived in Winnipeg late afternoon on Friday, which allowed attendees to check into the hotel and check into the conference. None of the “formal” activities started until the Canadian club hospitality suites “Canuck Nite, eh!” opened around 9 PM that night.

That sequence changed slightly when the curlers joined the trek. The curling bonspiel (tournament) started on Friday morning, so we had to arrive a day earlier. Most of the attendees had no problem adding an additional day to the trip, so most years the bus simply left earlier to accommodate curling. The group gathered for an informal dinner on Thursday evening, but otherwise tried to clear their senses in preparation for the grueling curling schedule on Friday. Other years, the curlers simply found their own way to Winnipeg and met the bus upon its arrival on Friday evening. More on curling in yet another blog.

Shortly after arrival, the St. Paul/District group met for cocktails at our own District Hospitality Suite for cocktails before walking a few short blocks for a fine dining experience. Dinner took place at Hy’s Steakhouse in downtown Winnipeg, a classy, upscale establishment that featured “Prime Grade steaks, cold martinis and trademark warm hospitality.” Coats and ties were demanded of the gentlemen and ladies wore appropriate evening attire.

We were ushered into a dark private room with one large rectangular table. The table was meticulously set for the precise number of guests. One of the short sides of the table was reserved for Bob Johnson, Dick Grayson, Bob Knox, the Rotary District Governor, and any other dignitaries. Like almost everything about the Winnipeg event, the Hy’s experience was scripted, though the script definitely allowed for spontaneity. Bob Johnson usually kicked off the event by recognizing the guests and the Rotary District Governor(s) in attendance. We then went around the table with introductions. We told a little bit about ourselves, our club, Rotary classification, and how many years we’d participated in On to Winnipeg. Many were repeat attendees, but we almost always had a healthy number of newcomers. It was nice to meet and get to know some of our smaller group before getting inundated with hundreds of other Rotarians at the larger meeting.

This dinner was paid for in advance with a flat fee, but it was always a challenge to ensure we did overspend our budget. Bob Johnson (or me) was responsible to ensure that we had an opportunity to order one cocktail before ordering dinner. We also had a very strict rule on the total number of cocktails by each attendee (thus the need for the cocktail party prior to the dinner!). After cocktails, we ordered our dinner. Wine was served with dinner, but again, strictly limited. I don’t remember all the details, but we engaged in general conversation with the people around us during dinner. There were, though, occasional interruptions by someone (usually Johnson, Knox or Grayson) with something they wanted to share. Dinner was always wonderful and the company was exceptional!

Sometime after dinner and before dessert, the real magic started. The floor was opened for stories, jokes, or whatever anyone wanted to bring up. My dad, Dick Grayson, always stood up to tell his latest joke. At some point someone (usually Bob Knox) would shout out, “Number 9!” Others would then join in, “Yes, number 9!” Newcomers would typically just look around wondering what was going on. After some rumbling back and forth, it became apparent that they were calling for my dad get back up to tell a specific joke. There were two stories/jokes that my dad seemingly told every year. Both were relatively long “jokes,” and each involved significant animation by my father. It always started by Knox or someone else yelling a number. You could count on hearing either “The Brigadier” or The Four Balls.” Most years, he would tell both, and this was clearly a highlight to all of the “regulars.”

I never had my dad’s gift of storytelling. I usually forget the punch line or otherwise can’t remember the sequence of the joke. Though I generally can see humor in almost any situation, telling stories/jokes is normally not my strength. I am much better with the written word, where I can think and ponder to get the words right. That said, I attended the Winnipeg Goodwill Meeting the year immediately following my dad’s death. At some point during the Hy’s dinner, the group started yelling numbers. I knew there was no way I could replicate my father’s recitation of one of his jokes, but I stood up anyway and gave it my best shot.

I chose “The Brigadier.” This joke involved an old British Brigadier sitting at a pub regaling his experiences during the war. The Brigadier was talking to an elderly chap at the other end of the bar. They were both hard of hearing, so the Brigadier’s “aide” (i.e., his son) had to shuttle back and forth between the two to transmit each part of the conversation. During his telling of this story, my dad would literally run from one end of the room to the other to animate the shuttling between the elderly British men. He used his best English accent to add character to the story. It has a quite funny ending, but certainly the best part of this whole story was my dad’s obvious joy in telling the tale.

During my telling, I admittedly might have had a bit too much wine during dinner. I truly wasn’t expecting to tell the story, but I’d heard it so many times that much of it was stored somewhere in my brain, even though I didn’t think it was. Somehow, I was able to channel my father in telling his story. I don’t know if it was nostalgia, recognition of the effort, or mere pity for me, but I got a solid round of applause after nailing the punch line! I felt that Dick Grayson was looking down proudly.

Dinner almost always had somewhat of an abrupt end. This was another of Bob Johnson’s scripted items. We needed to finish up on time in order to get to the Canadian hospitality suites. The Canuck Clubs did a fantastic job highlighting their local areas – and they were always a lot of fun. We meandered from room to room, each with a distinctive theme, and met Rotarians from across the Manitoba and beyond. We often received tchotchkes/souvenirs from each room – and there was always something unique to eat or drink. Most suites included music, dancing, games, and other activities. I can’t begin to explain how interesting and fun these evenings were, but it was typically long after midnight before we got to bed.

Doug Bruce and I were constant companions during each On to Winnipeg trip.

Saturday consisted of a business meeting, business/Rotary seminars, a formal luncheon, and various tours throughout the city. The luncheon included speeches by the various District Governors in attendance, award of the curling trophy, and the Sergeant of Arms for the Order of Rotary International Fellowship administering fines for various faux pas noted so far at the conference. Many of these were inside jokes, but some were terribly funny. The tours were fun and there was plenty of free time for other activities, such as ice skating on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, the Festival du Voyageur (Canada’s Winter Carnival that often synced with this meeting), Manitoba Moose Hockey, numerous museums, and shopping.

River skating in Winnipeg

The Saturday evening formal banquet always kicked off with full pomp and circumstance. This was black tie optional. It included a bagpiper escorting the head table into the ballroom and a formal flag ceremony presented by the Canadian Mounties. A Canadian Color Guard would present the flags of both Canada and the United States and the audiance sang both National Anthems. Soon after me and our group of curlers started attending, Colonel (retired) Alan Ruvelson and I added to the ceremony by wearing our Army dress mess uniforms and presenting a United States Flag to the Winnipeg Clubs. There was always an interesting (and often famous) keynote speaker. Several times this was the sitting Rotary International President, but we had politicians, comedians, and various other famous types. All were very good!

Immediately following dinner was a mad dash to the U.S. hospitality suites. Like the Canadian rooms the previous night, the U.S. clubs did our best to match the hospitality. Ours was known as one of the more sedate rooms. We had a single harpist or a piano player, but were known for the drinks. Most hospitality rooms, both Canadian and U.S., offered wine or beer, but the District 5960 suite was well-known for our full bar. We also served ice cream sundaes as a drink alternative. Both options brought significant crowds to the room. We had to “staff” our room with a schedule, so our District attendees could get around to the other U.S. hospitality suites.

At a certain appointed time (11PM?), there was an informal attempt to gather all attendees back in the main ballroom of the hotel. The only “business” was to circle the room (holding hands if you were interested) and sing Auld Lang Syne, as celebration of our lasting friendships. For many, this was a powerful and defining moment of the entire conference. Then, it was quickly back to the hospitality suites. After an exhausting evening of pomp and circumstance, staffing our hospitality suite, and visiting other suites, we were definitely tuckered out. We had to sleep fast since the bus left promptly on Sunday morning. We often had to rouse someone who missed their alarm.

The ride home on the bus was simply a reverse of the outgoing trip. The bridge tournament continued until an eventual winner was determined. Those not involved in bridge simply relaxed and caught up on their sleep. Unlike some, I worked for myself, so did not have the following day off (Presidents Day), so I definitely took advantage of the plush bus seating for a nap.

Bob Knox and Marcy Wallace gunning for the Bridge trophy.

In addition to my multiple years attending the Winnipeg Annual International Rotary Goodwill Meeting, I have attended many other conferences. In Rotary alone, I’ve attended four International Rotary Conferences, at least a half-dozen President Elect Training Conferences, and various District and multi-District conferences and events. None of those measure up to the Winnipeg Conference. Attendees came from across Canada, throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, and Montana, and even regular attendees from North Carolina and Arizona. It was unique and diverse. International Conferences are wonderous in their own right, but I find them a bit too large and logistically difficult to navigate. Smaller conferences don’t provide a sufficient critical mass. Winnipeg was just right.

Several years after I left the Twin Cities, the Winnipeg Annual International Rotary Goodwill Meeting died. This was actually a slow death, as attendance had started to wane. Like many events, it is hard to sustain over a period of years, but this event hung in there for over 80 years – through wars, a depression, and many other times of economic and social turmoil. It was a unique display of the long-standing American (Canadian and U.S.) partnership. I am encouraged to hear sparks of new interest in resurrecting this tradition – and will be first in line, together with my pal, Doug Bruce, when that effort begins to roll!

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