By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, June 14, 2013
The glue that has kept Atlanta’s civic and business communities intact for the past century has been the Rotary Club of Atlanta.
One hundred years ago — June 18, 1913, to be exact — Ivan Allen Sr. sent a letter to the secretary of the International Association of Rotary Clubs in Chicago requesting that Atlanta establish its own Rotary Club. Rotary International was still a young movement, having been founded in Chicago in 1905.
To celebrate that date, the Atlanta Rotary Club will hold a 100th anniversary dinner on June 18 at the Hyatt Regency downtown to recognize the organization’s history — which in many ways parallels the history of Atlanta — and the club’s mission of “Service Above Self.”
In true Atlanta style, only three years later, the leaders decided they wanted to host Rotary International’s 1917 convention. A delegation of 36 Rotarians took a railcar full of watermelons to the 1916 convention in Cincinnati, and rented out an entire floor of the Simpson Hotel to make sure Atlanta would get noticed.
“The energy level of these people was so high,” said Doug Ellis, who has become Atlanta Rotary’s official historian. “It must have been one big party.”
Atlanta won the 1917 Rotary International Convention. In a full-circle, centennial kind of way, the Rotary Club of Atlanta will host the Rotary International convention in 2017.
Today there are 34,000 clubs worldwide, of which downtown Atlanta’s is one of the largest with more than 500 members. There are many other Rotary clubs around metro Atlanta, among them Midtown, Buckhead, Roswell, North Fulton, Dunwoody and Stone Mountain.
“We’ve become the forum for Atlanta,” said Ellis, who joined the downtown Atlanta club in 1965 and became president in 1977. “It’s a wonderful balance of community service, fellowship and meetings.” The club’s service projects have included drilling water wells and distributing water purification products in drought stricken parts of Kenya, which saved many lives.
Glen Jackson, a public relations executive with Jackson Spalding, has been documenting Rotary’s history by doing a series of more than two dozen video interviews with longtime Rotarians. Jackson also has been organizing the 100th Anniversary event, which will have several special touches.
For example, The Coca-Cola Co. will be providing a commemorative Coke bottle for the occasion. A special lapel pin has been made. There will be a proclamation from Gov. Nathan Deal.
But perhaps the highlight will be a four-minute composition by Richard Prior, a conductor and composer at Emory University, that has been written especially for the occasion titled: “Service Above Self.”
Those special touches are indicative of what Rotary, its weekly meetings, its members and its service missions have meant to those involved.
Take Paula Bevington. She was among the first three women to be asked to join the Rotary Club of Atlanta in September 1987, two years before Rotary International had given its blessing to allow women members. Bevington then became Atlanta Rotary’s first woman president in 1999-2000. Today, the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s membership has become much more diverse and includes nonprofit, academic and civic leaders in addition to the traditional business executives.
Steve Hennessy, an automobile dealer who is completing his one-year term as president, said he “became a member kicking and screaming.”
Now he’s totally bought into the whole “unique culture” of Rotary, Hennessy said. “I love the engagement and how we address the important issues of the day.”