Fostering a strong sense of community and international friendship were the primary pursuits of Paul P. Harris, who was born in Racine on April 19, 1868, and who later founded Rotary International, a charitable organization that now has more than 1.2 million members in 35,000 clubs worldwide.

As a young attorney who located his practice in Chicago, Harris created Rotary as a means to develop strong civic commitment and camaraderie among other young professionals who also relocated in the Midwest to begin their careers. That was in 1905, when Harris gathered three of his business associates to begin meeting weekly. Twelve years later, the first Rotary Club was founded in Racine.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Rotary activity in Racine. In celebration, Rotarians have donated more than $100,000 to the City of Racine to build a band shell at Festival Park and to rename the park after the Racine native and Rotary founder. On April 19 – Harris’ birthday – the city will dedicate the “Paul P. Harris Rotary Park.”

Prototypes of the new park sign will be unveiled Wednesday. A permanent exhibit about Paul P. Harris and Rotary activities in Racine, designed by Racine Heritage Museum, is planned to be a feature at the park at a later date.

“Hundreds of Racine Rotarians have invested their hearts, talents and financial resources during the last 100 years into making Racine and the world a better place,” says Ashley Staeck, president of the Founders Rotary Club. “This is a tribute to Paul P. Harris who inspired them and so many others around the world.”

Rotary International President John F. Germ said the founder of Rotary believed that serving humanity is the most worthwhile thing a person can do.

“The reason Paul Harris founded Rotary 111 years ago is still very much the reason people come to Rotary today: to find people who share their values – people who believe in honesty, diversity, tolerance, friendship and peace. People who believe that serving humanity is the best thing they can do with their time on this earth.”

The Rotary Club of Racine was founded in 1917 and grew to spin off two additional clubs – Racine Rotary West Club in 1969 and the Rotary Club of Racine Founders in 1985. Eventually, all of the clubs converged into the Founders Club, which meets at 7 a.m. Fridays at the Racine Country Club, 4801 Northwestern Ave. The club has 109 members from various professions and careers. Visitors are welcome. The Rotary motto is “Service above Self.”

All three clubs had charitable foundations that resulted from their fundraising efforts to raise money for community, national and international projects. The donation to Paul P. Harris Rotary Park and band shell comes from those combined foundations. In 100 years, millions of dollars have been contributed in Rotary projects. Among the more notable contributions are the following:

  • Rotary Post Prom, which every spring safely ushers about 1,500 graduating high school seniors into adulthood (This year’s Rotary Post Prom is May 20);
  • Career Discovery Solutions, a program that offers middle school students opportunities to explore career options while solving a hands-on challenge at various Racine businesses and organizations (See more at: http://www.cdsracine.com/);
  • Camp Anokijig. Rotarians raised money to purchase land for the camp in 1932 and continue to award “camperships” to children who otherwise would not be able to attend;
  • Dennis Barry Strive Scholarships, awarded every year to high school graduates and college students to pursue higher education;
  • Rotary Youth Exchange, which gives high school students the opportunity to both leave the Racine area to live abroad for a year and to come to the Racine area from abroad to experience life here. The club’s current exchange student is Olka from Poland, who is attending Horlick High School;
  • International humanitarian projects, including clean water filter project in Uzbekistan, a medical clinic in Guatemala and a horse therapy facility at an orphanage in Kyrgyzstan.
  • The Founders Rotary Club’s largest ongoing fundraising efforts include Vegas Night, traditionally in February, and the Dennis Barry Strive Scholarship Golf Outing in September.
  • Weekly, Rotarians offer their own money during the Rotary meeting to support the foundation.

On an international level, Rotary has been instrumental in nearly eliminating polio from existence. Since the mid-1980s, Rotary International teams have inoculated millions of children in efforts to wipe out the disease. Rotary International is committed to six major humanitarian areas: promoting peace; fighting disease; providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene; saving mothers and children; supporting education and growing local economies. More about Rotary International can be found online at: https://www.rotary.org/en.

With the renaming of Paul P. Harris Rotary Park and the band shell, Founders Club members hope to establish Racine as the start of a Paul P. Harris “Heritage Trail.” There is an effort among Rotarians worldwide to create that kind of a tribute to the founder. A collection of Rotary Clubs in Chicago have bought and are restoring Harris’ home, “Comely Bank,” where Harris and his wife, Jean, entertained hundreds of Rotarians through the years. It is a goal among Rotarians to establish a trail from Harris’ birth in Racine to the building in downtown Chicago, where Rotary began, to his Chicago-area home, and then to Rotary International headquarters in Evanston, IL. Thousands of Rotarians visit Evanston to know more about Rotary each year.

This column was written by Laura Sumner Coon. Racine County Eye will be featuring more about the club over the coming months in celebration of their 100th anniversary.