Rotary was officially founded on February 23, 1905.
Leaders of the Rotary Club of Chicago went on to establish Rotary International in 1910.
The club has an extensive online archive of early documents available to the public, click here to view and search.
Paul Harris and five business friends discussed creating a business networking group off and on in 1904. Then on February 23, 1905, Paul Harris had dinner with his closest friend, Chicago coal dealer Silvester Schiele. Afterwards they walked up to Room 711 of the Unity Building where they met their host, Gustavus Loehr, a mining engineer; and another friend, Hiram Shorey, a merchant tailor. Harris proposed that they form a club. No name was chosen for the group. But they agreed to meet next at the offices of Silvester Schiele. The second meeting was March 9th. Three other men, Harry Ruggles, William Jenson, and A. L. White joined them. Ruggles was a printer, and created the “name badge” version of the Rotary “wheel” and also started singing in Rotary. In fact his singing kept the group from disbanding more than once. It was also decided that “rotating” the meetings made “Rotary” the most logical name. Two weeks later the group gathered at the office of Silvester Schiele, in his coal yard at Twelfth and State Streets. Six of the previous seven were present along with Charles Newton and Arthur B. Irwin.
Paul P. Harris
Rotary’s founder, Harris, was born in Racine, Wisconsin, USA, on 19 April 1868. He was raised by his paternal grandparents in Vermont and attended the University of Vermont, Princeton, and the University of Iowa. In 1897 he settled in Chicago and established a law practice. However, he missed the close social relationships typical of small towns. Paul developed an idea for a club which would band together business and professional men in friendship and fellowship.
On February 23, 1905, the Rotary Club’s first meeting took place in Room 711 in Chicago’s Unity Building (now where Block 37 stands). Paul named the club “Rotary” because the members met, in rotation, at their various places of business. The idea caught on, first in other U.S. cities and then in other countries. He was Rotary president from 1910 to 1912 and a member of the Rotary Club of Chicago until his death on 27 January 1947.
Today there are over 33,000 clubs in more than 200 countries with over 1.3 million members. In 110 years, one man’s idea has become a worldwide force for service and international fellowship.
Loehr, a mining engineer, was born on 18 October 1864 in Carlinville, Illinois. He was a Rotarian for only a few years, never holding office at the club or international level. But that first Rotary meeting was held in his office, Room 711 of the Unity Building in downtown Chicago. He died in Chicago on 23 May 1918.
A Rotarian for only a few years, Shorey served as recording secretary during the club’s first year. He was born in Maine in August 1862 and died in March 1944.
Schiele, a coal dealer, served as the Chicago club’s first president in 1905 and Rotary International’s third treasurer in 1945. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in June 1870, Schiele attended Terre Haute Business College and served in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. He was president of the Schiele Coal Company from 1902 until his retirement in 1939. He and Harris became lifelong friends and lived near each other on the South Side of Chicago. Schiele died on 17 December 1945 and is buried near Harris at Mount Hope Cemetery.
Arthur F. Sheldon
Originator of the Motto, “He Profits Most Who Serves Best.”
Charles A. Newton
Originated the Luncheon idea.
Montague M. Bear
Creator and designer of the Rotary Wheel.
Harry L. Ruggles
Ruggles is usually regarded as the ‘Fifth Rotarian’ when he filled the classification of ‘Printer’, joining the other four at their second meeting. In his trade, he produced most of the stationery for the new club, including the first printed emblem. Since they called themselves “Rotary,” Harry used a wagon wheel with ‘Rotary Club’ above it. But Harry Ruggles’ single great contribution had nothing to do with his trade. The story is told that little more than a year after Rotary had been formed, at an evening meeting in 1906, the guest speaker began a story. Having heard it before, Harry also had heard the off-color ending, and felt it was inappropriate for the club, so he jumped up in the middle of the joke and yelled, “Come on boys, let’s sing!” He then led the club in the singing of ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’. This was not only the first time that members had ever sung in Rotary, but apparently, also the first time that a group of businessmen ever sang at a business meeting, anywhere. From then on, many Rotary Clubs, especially in the United States, “started to sing!”
Originally from Michigan, Ruggles was a graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and joined Rotary at its second meeting. He was treasurer of the Chicago club during its first year, president from 1908 to 1910, and a Rotary director from 1912 to 1913. His printing company, H.L. Ruggles & Co., printed the first issue of The National Rotarian and the first Rotary songbook. He died on 23 October 1959, an honorary member of seven clubs in addition to his home club, the Rotary Club of Chicago.
Herbert J. Taylor
President, Rotary Club of Chicago, 1939-40 and Rotary International 1954-55. During a business crisis in 1932, he wrote the “Four Way Test,” shown below. It was adopted as part of Rotary International in January of 1943.
The Four-Way Test
In the early 1930s Taylor set out to save the Club Aluminum Products distribution company from bankruptcy. He believed himself to be the only person in the company with 250 employees who had hope. His recovery plan started with changing the ethical climate of the company. He explained:
“ The first job was to set policies for the company that would reflect the high ethics and morals God would want in any business. If the people who worked for Club Aluminum were to think right, I knew they would do right. What we needed was a simple, easily remembered guide to right conduct – a sort of ethical yardstick- which all of us in the company could memorize and apply to what we thought, said and did.
I searched through many books for the answer to our need, but the right phrases eluded me, so I did what I often do when I have a problem I can’t answer myself: I turn to the One who has all the answers. I leaned over my desk, rested my head in my hands and prayed. After a few moments, I looked up and reached for a white paper card. Then I wrote down the twenty-four words that had come to me:
1. Is it the truth? 2. Is it fair to all concerned? 3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned? I called it ‘The Four-Way Test’ of the things we think, say or do.’ ”
Chesley R. Perry
Ches joined the Rotary Club of Chicago in 1908 at 36 years of age and continued to be an active member of our club throughout his lifetime. In 1909 Paul Harris asked Ches to develop a nationwide plan for an association of Rotary Clubs. When the National Association of Rotary Clubs (the forerunner of Rotary International) was founded a year later, Ches began a 31-year career as its General Secretary. When he retired from Rotary International in 1941 Ches Perry had overseen the incredible expansion of Rotary into a truly effective worldwide organization.
Paul Harris said of Ches, “If I can in truth be called the architect, Ches can with equal truth be called the builder of Rotary International.”
Mural by Louis Grell. Hung in the Veterans Room of the Sherman Hotel for decades. The mural was restored in the 1990’s.