The Early History of Paul Harris

Longniddry & District
Some thoughts on Paul Harris
-the Architect of Rotary
"Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that,
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man, the world o'er,
Shall brithers be for a' that."

Robert Burns

Paul Percy Harris was the founder of Rotary, the world's first truely international service club. Harris created something unique, a whole world away from the old fraternity clubs such as the Elks and the Masonic Orders. Paul Harris founded a different type of organisation, based on informality and exclusitivity that the fraternalist clubs could never attain. In his own words, Rotary offered " fraternity without rituals, passwords and secrets". Harris' idea of the service club has been copied and adapted the world over from the Lions and Kiwanis to the British Round Table.

Paul Harris was born in Racine Wisconsin, USA on 19 April 1868. Significantly, at three years old, Paul moved to Wallingford, Vermont where he grew up in the care of his paternal grandparents. His upbringing in the small New England town of the late nineteenth century would shape his destiny in years to come. There is much speculation about Harris' roots - he claimed he was descended from the pilgrim fathers and certainly had Irish ancestors on his mothers side but his surname suggests that he has Scottish ancestry as hinted to by Rotarian James T Walsh in his excellent book, The First Rotarian. Former RIBI Editor Vivian Carter accepts this in his book, The Romance of Rotary in London (p. 16).

Rotarian David Shelley Nicholl in his Rotary Global History, The Golden Wheel seems to accept Harris' Scottish roots by looking at circumstantial evidence. Nicholl goes on to say (at page 17), "Paul Harris was bequeathed by inheritance...the thoughtful, hard-working Scottish prudence which knew its place and stayed there".

Paul Harris


Paul went on to marry a young Scottish lady on July 2nd 1910. Jean Thomson Harris (1881 - 1963) was born and brought up in Edinburgh. The couple had no children, however, Paul Harris always felt that Rotary International was his adoptive child and many visitors took up Paul's kind invitation to share his home "Comely Bank" [10856 Longwood Drive] - named after the street in Edinburgh, Scotland where Jean spent her childhood.
Paul and Jean Harris

Paul and Jean Harris
Paul and Jean Harris
click for more on Jean Harris
Edinburgh's Comely Bank as it is in February 2002

He received his L.L.B. (Bachelor of Laws) from the University of Iowa. Paul had also spent a year of study at Princeton College, New Jersey under the guidance of President Dr James McCosh, formerly of the University of Edinburgh who taught logic and psychology. Many years later he received an honorary L.L.D. (Doctor of Laws) from the University of Vermont where he had been expelled (mistakenly) from in his youth. Paul Harris was, in addition, given the Degree of Doctor honoris causa from the College of Law in Lima, Peru.

After University, Paul Harris decided to take five years out to see the world and worked in a variety of short-term jobs. These included a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, a business teacher in Los Angeles, stock company actor in Denver and a cowboy in the Rockies. He travelled extensively all over the USA and on to Britain and mainland Europe. Paul was a great admirer of British writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens and Shakepeare. That great Scotsman Robert Burns was his favourite poet. Harris was truly, even at this early age, a great internationalist.

After his five years of travel and adventures he arrived in Chicago to practice law in 1896. One evening in the summer of 1900, Paul visited the suburban home of a professional friend. Initially, Harris -like so many other country boys in the big city-had struggled to make friends. After dinner, as they strolled through his neighbourhood, Paul's friend introduced him to various tradesmen in their stores, - referring to each person by their first name. It was here Paul conceived the idea of a club that could recapture some of the friendly spirit among businessmen in that small, rural New England communiy he knew and loved. Paul Harris did not act immediately, this dream of community spirit would take a few years yet to incubate before its birth.

As Harris himself, in My Road to Rotary, said, " The thought persisted that I was experiencing only what had happened to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others in the great city came to me. I was sure that there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago. In fact, I knew a few. Why not bring them together? If the others were longing for fellowship as I was, something would come of it."

This Rotarian Age

On 23 February, 1905, Paul Harris formed the first club with three other businessmen: Silvester Schiele, a coal merchant; Gustavus Loehr, a mining engineer; and Hiram Shorey, a merchant tailor. Loehr and Shorey 'failed to follow through' but new members emerged like the printer, Harry Ruggles and Charley Newton. Schiele, a life-long personal friend, became the first President of the club. Paul Harris named the new club "Rotary" because members met in rotation at their various places of business. Club membership grew rapidly due to the ideas of fellowship and extending business interests. Very soon Paul became convinced that the Rotary club could be developed into a more important national and international service movement and he unilaterally strove to extend Rotary to other cities. in that first Chicago Club had their doubts about this "Rotary Around the World phantasy" but Paul's determination and single-mindedness won the day. Paul's notion of community service is what allowed Rotary to expand and become the world wide phenomenon it is today and is Harris' greatest achievement.

Rotary was born in this new era of Progressivism where new responsibilities towards social justice began to emerge. Best-selling books such as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) - set in "virile, agressive, pradoxical Chicago" - forced new attitudes about service to one's community. As Harris said, "The ills with which Chicago was afflicted in those days were also prevalent elsewhere in the country...Community spirit was at a low ebb almost everywhere. It was time for a change for the better. It had to come". The first community service project undertaken by the first Rotary Club was the establishment of 'public comfort stations' (toilets!).

The Houston Chronicle in 1919 said that "He (Harris) organised a strange kind of club, for which men get nothing, but actually pay for the privilege of doing good". Of course Rotarians do not get nothing out of their club, they are inundated with a bounty of friendship and fellowship as well as the wonderful satisfaction in making a difference to their communities and the world.

Paul was prominent in other civic and professional work. He served as the first chairman of the board of the national Easter Seal Society of Crippled Children and Adults in the USA and of the International Society for Crippled Children. He was a member of the board of managers of the Chicago Bar Association and its representative at the International Congress of Law at the Hague, and a committee member of the American Bar Association. He received the Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America for distinguished service to youth, and was decorated by the governments of Brazil, -The Order of the Southern Cross,Chile - Order of Merit, Dominican Republic- Order of Cristobal Colon, Ecuador- Order of Merit, France- Officer Legion of Honour and Peru, Order of the Sun.

Rotary honoured Paul Harris on his retirement in 1912 after a physical breakdown with the unique title of President Emeritus, the only person to hold such a distinction. Harris was a somewhat frail figure physically but blessed with a huge heart and concrete principles. This modest man would probably blush if he could sense just a fraction of the affection to which he is still held by Rotarians the world over.

Paul spent his latter years from 1926 onwards travelling and was invited to speak to Rotarians at annual conventions, district and regional meetings, and other functions. He became Rotary's greatest ambassador always sending a profound message to RI Conventions. Many Rotarians believed Harris was dead. One of his most significant, symbolic gestures was the planting of Friendship Trees in many of the countries ravaged by War.

Harris died on January 27th, 1947, two days after that other Chicago personage, Al Capone. His vision, however, lives on in all Rotarians whether they realise it or not. From the fellowship of the weekly meeting to the varied charity and community events, his hopes and aspirations continue and surely as Paul himself would say, there is even more for Rotary to achieve in the future. The concept of service has been established and recognised and when faced with the challenges of depression or war it grows even stronger. In 1947 his dream had grown from an informal meeting of four men to some 6,000 clubs brought together through the service and fellowship of Rotary. In the following five decades, the organisation has grown to more than 30,000 clubs with 1.2 million members bound together through Paul Harris' vision of service and fellowship. Paul Harris' death saw the beginning of the Rotary Foundation as a mark of tribute to the man, the Foundation is the largest private charity foundation in the world with a very simple aim, - to do good.

Paul Harris in Edinburgh
Paul  Harris in Edinburgh
Paul Harris on one of his many international visits - Edinburgh in 1934.

Paul Harris is not dead. So said Thomas A Warren from Wolverhampton, England, Immediate Past President of Rotary International in The Rotarian, March 1947. In his tribute, President Warren said, "His spirit lives on. It abides everywhere. It is woven into the very fibre of other men's lives. As we take leave of his mortal self, we re-dedicate ourselves to the never ending task he has inspired and bequeathed to those who will assuredly follow his paths down the years to come."
Our Club and this web site tries to live up to this maxim, - "In the promotion of international understanding and goodwill, one must remember it's important to reach as large numbers as possible - non-Rotarians as well as Rotarians- and one cannot reach large numbers privately." PAUL HARRIS, "Peregrinations" Vol II,

The thoughts and historical interpretations on this page belong to the webmaster, Doug Rudman - Calum Thomson. They are not necessarily the views of members of Longniddry and District Rotary Club.

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