History Matters-  Paul Harris Birthday


“The truth is he rode no white charger. He carried no flaming sword. He was rather, a very average young man much too busy to take on outside obligations, much too harassed by the demands of earning a living. They say he was good-hearted but prone to procrastination. However, he had one saving grace- he recognized his shortcomings.” Oren Arnold - The Golden Strand


During the month of April, the Rotary world traditionally honors Paul Harris’s birthday. Although Paul never had an official birth certificate authenticating his arrival on April 19th, to a struggling family in the small town of Racine Wisconsin in 1868, the above description does reflect the character of the man he grew to be.


As Paul Harris grew up in the post-Civil War period of the United States, few people gave the young man much of a chance that he would amount to very much. He was, after all, the product of dysfunctional family who had committed the unforgivable sin of filing for bankruptcy and living off the generous charity of his grandparents.


As a young teenager, he spent much of his time roaming the streets of Wallingford, Vermont getting into trouble and keeping that quiet town in a constant state of disarray. He was expelled from three different schools and because of his reputation, was often prejudged as not being suitable when applying for a job.


When he finally did graduate from a then obscure college in Iowa, he decided to wander the world by himself for almost five years before settling in perhaps one of the roughest and toughest cities in the country- Chicago.


Today, this often wayward and unruly rebel is remembered as the founder of one of the world’s greatest humanitarian and service oriented organizations, Rotary.  Quite literally, millions if not billions of people have been touched in some fashion by the good works of those Rotarians worldwide who took his original ideas and shaped them into what we are. 


Somehow, this humble man has been elevated to lofty heights and given extraordinary powers of perception for what he supposedly had accomplished. Yet, ironically, Paul Harris would be the first to say, his role was very minor. He was always amazed at how strong and vibrant was the oak tree he had planted as a little acorn. He rarely took credit for Rotary, leaving the high honors and prase for others to bask in.


Paul’s ideas about Rotary were simple. All he ever wanted was for Rotarians to have fun. They should delight in being with each other and be tolerant of their differences.  They should try to look for the best in people and try to capture the joy and beauty of life. He asked that Rotarians think of others before themselves and to live by the Golden Rule in their business and personal lives.


If they could do this, then Rotary will have provided everything they could envision.


One final note; the accepted date of Paul Harris’s birth is April 19, 1868, yet there was an apparent misprint on his funeral program listing his birthdate as April 19, 1869 instead of 1868. Although Paul had no official birth certificate, years before his good friend Silvester Schiele attested in certain legal documents that Paul’s actual date of birth was 1868. As a courtesy, since Silvester also did not have a birth certificate either, Paul legally attested to his friend’s date of birth. Today, both men are buried next to each other at Mount Hope Cemetery.


Fred Carvin PDG

Author “Paul Harris and the Birth of Rotary”

Unpublished Copyright© Fred A. Carvin  2014

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