International Link-Up with Rotary Club No 1, Chicago

Three years ago, thanks to the strenuous efforts of Ayr Rotarian John Ewing, he and a few fellow-members were able to meet a Rotary VIP from the US: Robb Knuepfer, a Rotary International Director and past-president of Rotary Club No 1, Chicago, Illinois. This was where Rotary was founded in 1905 by Paul Harris, a successful city lawyer, and was where he and his Chicago club colleagues began the world’s first Service Club. By the time of Harris’ death in 1947, Rotary International had grown to more than 200,000 members in 75 countries (now 1.3 million).

The main purpose of that meeting in June 2019 was to present Robb (also a successful retired Chicago lawyer) with a duplicate of the Paul Harris, interactive picture which had been given by Ayr Rotary Club to the Turnberry Hotel and now hangs in the hotel lobby.

Experiencing the Paul Harris interactive exhibit at Turnberry Golf Club Hotel

John Ewing of Ayr Rotary presentation to Robb Knuepfer of Chicago Rotary

The picture was the brainchild of John and includes an audio link to a speech by Paul Harris made at the 1933 Rotary Convention in Boston and broadcast nationally in the US. This recording was edited to include only the tribute Harris pays to Robert Burns, the internationally renowned Scottish bard. Paul says in the recording that Burns’s philosophy embraces the true meaning of Rotary. Both, of course, were great humanitarians and the commonly held belief is that Paul Harris developed his love of mankind during his visits to Ayrshire with his wife Jean, and staying at the manse with her brother, the Church of Scotland minister in Annbank.

Paul and Jean Harris’s visit to Ayr on 2nd April 1934

Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln, (yet another lawyer from Illinois) is reputed to have carried a copy of the works of Robert Burns at all times.

Paul Harris and Robert Burns

Last week, a virtual meeting was held between the two Rotary clubs as a demonstration of their common interests and to celebrate Paul Harris’s connections with Ayrshire and Robert Burns. The meeting was opened with the ringing of the Chicago club’s 100th anniversary bell, a custom begun in 2005.

Rob Knuepfer opened proceedings with an update of the remarkable progress made by the Chicago club on the restoration of the former home of the Rotary founder. Harris and his wife, Jean, purchased the Tudor-style house in southern Chicago, Illinois, USA in 1912.

Jean and Paul Harris at home in Chicago

It was there that some of the world’s first Rotarians met and fostered the friendship on which Rotary was built. After Paul’s death in 1947, Jean sold the home. It changed owners twice more before a group of Rotarians purchased it in 2005 with money they borrowed from the charitable foundation of the Rotary Club of Naperville, Illinois, USA. The house, named Comely Bank after the district in Edinburgh where Jean had been born, has now been restored to the way it looked in the 1940s and is open for public viewing and to use as a meeting place for Rotary members. It is entirely fitting that it is in this house that the duplicate picture gifted by the Rotary Club of Ayr to the Chicago club now hangs.

Ayr Rotary president Bob Cherry thanked Rob for his update and introduced John Ewing who gave an excellent account of the links between Paul Harris and Ayrshire and (for the benefit of the newer members of both clubs) a description of the June 2019 meeting with Rob Knuepfer to present the Paul Harris interactive picture. John’s talk included a running of the short video which can be accessed from the picture by QR code.

Paul Harris with the 8 minute long radio broadcast from Boston in 1933

He followed that with a short tribute to the remarkable founder of Rotary who had twice worked passage to Europe in 1893 on-board a cattle ship and John showed another picture of Paul Harris meeting members of the Rotary Club of Ayr on a visit in 1934.

John then gave way to Jimmy Begg to excite his American audience’s fascination with Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, with a beautifully illustrated presentation which also illustrated the attractions of auld Alloway. This fascination, Jimmy ventured, was due primarily to the massive 19th and early 20th century emigration from Scotland to the US and he cited the habit of Paul Harris to always have two books at his bedside – the Bible and the poetic works of Burns, as did President Abraham Lincoln both great admirers of Robert Burns.

Jimmy finished with recitations of a few verses from Tam-o’-Shanter, Burns’ Anthem to Humanity and Auld Lang Syne, to add even greater impact to his excellent presentation.

Cheryl McIntyre, chair of the Comely Bank board of trustees, then described the work of the Chicago club and the Comely Bank Foundation in bringing a long-held dream to reality and ran a virtual tour of the house and the adjoining Peace Garden, a great attraction and wonderful tribute to both Paul and Jean Harris.

The meeting concluded with a toast by Rob Knuepfer “to all Rotarians doing what they do best and the greatest humanitarian organisation in the world” and a pledge to maintain the friendship link between the two clubs.