History Matters


“The invisible force of Rotary is love of men for their fellow men, free from the restraints of formality; free from religious,

racial and political prejudices. The love of men for their fellow men is the breath of life of Rotary.” 

Salute to the Rotarians of 2043 – taped November 11, 1943


The sentiments expressed by Paul Harris above appear to be fairly straight forward and should need little by the way of explanation.  If it wasn’t for the love we have for our fellow human beings, would Rotarians be capable of accomplishing the wonderful things we do?  Love is at the core and is the very essences of our existence. And this observation is true and undeniable.


Yet, in some minds, there is another lingering question. Did Paul Harris have another kind of love for his fellow male companions? In short, was he homosexual?


The truth, as they say, may never be fully known. But the “actualities” are compelling.

Almost all of Paul’s friends were male and many never married. All four of the original founders were single and were approaching or were over 40 years of age when they started Rotary. Many of his closest friends including Rufus Chapin, and Monte Bear lived with their mothers and were not burdened with female companions.  He’s buried next to his best friend Silvester Schiele, while his wife Jean is buried thousands of miles away in Scotland. He was proud of the bohemian life style he lived during his early years in Chicago where he lived in a number of different locations around town. A quick count indicates he changed addresses 30 times in 15 years before settling down with his wife at Comely Bank in 1912.  Among his roommates were Silvester Schiele and Manuel Munoz who later went to California helping to establish Rotary on the west coast.


After he graduated from law school in 1890, young Mr. Harris spent roughly 5 years traveling around the country and world, often in the company of other male friends including Harry Pulliam who later became the first commissioner of professional baseball.  Paul worked as an actor, cowboy and sailor, spending long periods of time with other men in these professions.  He also was a newspaper reporter, teacher and stone salesman traveling from location to location leading a solitary and lonely existence.


The early Rotary meetings were dedicated mostly to male bonding where elaborate pranks and stunts were played on the unsuspecting. During the summer, the Rotarians would spend hardy and robust weekend get-a-ways across Lake Michigan at Dowagiac or Paw Paw, all orchestrated by Harris.


Paul married Jean Thompson after knowing her for only approximately 4 months in 1910. He was roughly 43 while Jean was 29, a difference of 14 years. Back then Jean would have been looked at as marrying late-in-life and Paul might have been considered a “confirmed bachelor.” Their union produced no children. There is little doubt their relationship was a caring and loving one but it might be best described as “platonic.”


While all this is interesting, none of it is proof positive that Paul had a special affection for his own sex. On the contrary, there are numerous indications he had a healthy appreciation of the female form. 

He writes that at age three he was enticed into throwing items off the upper decks of the steamship that was bringing his father and brother back east to Wallingford, Vermont, to gain the attention of a pretty young Miss with whom he fell immediately in love with.  As a teenager, he tells of having hopes that his feelings for a “plump, fair-haired, brown-eyed little lady” named Josie Lilly would be reciprocated. Unfortunately this secret love went unrequited.  Later, as a college student, there is strong evidence Paul fell victim to the charms of a local “soiled dove” that was known as “Philomena, the Berlin Bumblebee.”


In 1906, he met and fell in love with a beautiful socialite named Grace Irene Mann, who was from a very influential family.  Paul asked Grace to marry him, but because he came from a very different background, the family was opposed to the union. This devastation almost caused the end of Rotary. However, this relationship did change the course of Rotary from being a club dedicated to having fun and doing business with each other, to a group destined to become one of the greatest humanitarian organizations in the world.


So while some might question Paul’s sexual preferences, when viewed by the moral code of his time, such male attachments were not unusual. As men left home to travel around the country, it was not uncommon for these vagabonds to turn to one another for support in battling the extreme loneliness of missing family and friends. Often close intimacies, accompanied by open expressions of affection or infatuations were familiar and socially acceptable.  Since most boarding houses or hotels were overcrowded, sharing accommodations or a bed was not an indication of homosexuality but a communal practice.


The sensitivity over the possibility Paul Harris may have been gay is probably a reflection of today’s preoccupation with sexual orientation than those of the 19th and early 20th century.  In the end, it doesn’t matter. Paul’s assertion that all you need to be a good Rotarian is love is spot on.


Fred A. Carvin PDG

Senior Historian – RGHF

Author – “Paul Harris and the Birth of Rotary”

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Unpublished Copyright© Fred A. Carvin  2014

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