What is Rotary in Chattanooga? What is Rotary International? I will try to give you some history of Rotary Chattanooga, but one thing you need to know about Rotary International is that its efforts have helped to almost eliminate polio around the world. Did you know that that effort was successful in large part because of Chattanooga Rotary's own John Germ, who went on to become president of International Rotary? When and where did this all start?
In Chattanooga, Rotary started in 1914, about nine years after a 36-year-old bachelor-lawyer, Paul Harris, started the first club in Chicago. He brought together a group of businessmen to discuss their common interests, and they "rotated" for lunch — hence, the name, Rotary. In Chattanooga, the founders were W.B. Schwartz, James F. Finley, A.W. Burke, Ray H. Fitzgerald and John R. Evans, and they nicknamed each other after their businesses — like Jeweler LeBron and Sporting Goods Wright. Dr. T.S. McCallie, who held an annual Rotary church service, was called Rotary Parson McCallie. The initial membership was limited to 100, but Rotary Chattanooga, now with more than 360 members, is the 21st largest club in the world. Rotary International has more than 1.2 million members and more than 35,000 clubs.
But Rotary was more than just lunch because the founders wanted to give something back to the community where they did business. The club's first effort here in 1914 was the purchase of furniture for the Vine Street Orphanage. The next year members planted two million poppies all over the city to help the City Beautiful Club. In November 1916, Rotary began giving Thanksgiving dinners for the orphanage children.
In 1918, Rotary started the War Chest, which became the Community Chest and then United Way. The 1922 goal of $200,000 was achieved in three days and headed by W.E. Brock.
Rotary Chattanooga, however, has been even more than charity work. Among other efforts, it has spearheaded the sale of war bonds for World Wars I and II, built Habitat homes, provided clean water for 14 towns in the Dominican Republic and donated wheelchairs in Israel.
The meetings haven't been stuffy by any means. Rotary has always had its characters, cut-ups and professional thespians. In 1917, Rotary started the first of three annual plays, the first being Man of the Hour. The last play, All of a Sudden Peggy, was directed by Broadway notable, Milton Noble. The plays starred Rotarians as the actors and their wives as the actresses.
Supporting athletics has also been at the forefront of Rotary efforts. Rotary started with an annual golf tournament in the '40's and '50's, ending in 1965. That tournament attracted as many as 13 teams from schools in four surrounding states with Bobby Jones visiting in 1941. The tennis tournaments started in 1957 with John Strang as its first director and Jerry Evert, Chris Evert's uncle, as the second. That tournament continues to this day and is played on four separate campuses, attracting over 10 schools from five different states. Rotary has also always supported the UTC Mocs football team, starting with A.C. Scrappy Moore, whose Mocs mauled the University of Louisville on Louisville's home field when one John Unitas was quarterback at Louisville.
Rotary has not always met in one location. It started in the Hotel Patten and has ended at the Convention and Trade Center with a stop at the Read House.
And Rotary's lunch speakers have spanned the spectrum — Sen. John F. Kennedy, Sgt. Alvin York, John Philip Sousa, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Solicitor General W.L. Frierson, David Abshire, Frank Buck, Billy Graham, Cyrus McCormick and Chattanooga's own Adolph Ochs, who bought The Chattanooga Times, then traveled to New York to buy and build a small rag, The New York Times. There have been football coaches, senators, governors and congressmen. But perhaps some of the best have been Rotary's own, which happens when there is an unexpected "no-show" by a scheduled speaker, and one of its own is tapped to speak, such as Lee Anderson and Jim Kennedy.
In closing, Rotary is known for its motto: "Service above self." But Rotary also has one unwritten rule — if asked to do something by another Rotarian, you do it.
Neil Thomas, a past president of Rotary Chattanooga, is a retired Hamilton County Circuit Court judge. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.