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Winnipeg was first stop in Rotary's spread around the world

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/1/2014 (1301 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Rotary Club may have started in Chicago in 1905, but it took Winnipeggers to found a club here in 1910 before it could be known as Rotary International.

From its humble beginnings of four people around a table with its meetings "rotating" to each member's office, it has now grown to an organization 1.2 million strong in 34,000 clubs around the world.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press 
Rotary Club of Winnipeg members (back row, from left): Lucy Vogrig, Jason Kolaski,  Elly Hoogterp-Hurst, Don Ross and Frank Cosway.  (Front row, from left): Peter Tonge (seated), Tsungai Muvingi, Rany Jeyaratnam and Sandra Visentin.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Rotary Club of Winnipeg members (back row, from left): Lucy Vogrig, Jason Kolaski, Elly Hoogterp-Hurst, Don Ross and Frank Cosway. (Front row, from left): Peter Tonge (seated), Tsungai Muvingi, Rany Jeyaratnam and Sandra Visentin.

Don Ross, current president of Rotary's downtown Winnipeg club, said Rotarians he has met worldwide know the significance of the city in the organization's history.

"They formally changed their name once we joined," Ross said. "It's always a distinguishing feature of our club, that we were the first club outside of the United States. And our club has really paralleled the history of the city."

Through the years, many prominent people have been part of the Rotarians, including U.S. president Warren Harding; Finnish composer Jean Sibelius; Dr. Charles Mayo, co-founder of the Mayo Clinic; James Cash Penney, founder of J.C. Penney; and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

One of Rotary's major international projects was the fight to eradicate polio. Rotarians joined that fight in 1979, with a project to immunize six million Filipino children. By 2012, only three countries in the world were still polio-endemic, down from 125 countries 24 years earlier.

Decades before U.S. president John F. Kennedy uttered the words, "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," Rotary took as its motto "Service Above Self" in 1907.

"Whatever Rotary may mean to us, to the world it will be known by the results it achieves."-Founder Paul P. Harris

Ed Thompson, Rotary's district governor for Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwest Ontario, said at a time when other service clubs are shrinking or closing their doors, "we are holding our own." He said Winnipeg's 10 clubs have nearly 400 members in total and the district has about 1,600.

"There is a fellowship in Rotary and there is a way of giving back, not only to your local community, but also your world community."

Gale Walker, principal of Westgrove School in Charleswood, said the Charleswood Rotarians gave support in recent years to a literacy and breakfast program at the school.

Now the club is assisting a summer literacy program at Westgrove.

"Rotary helps bring in more speakers and the kids get more life experiences by going on more field trips," she said. "It makes a difference and impact for them.

"The Rotary Club has certainly helped our school quite a bit -- and the parents are grateful too."

Christine Bonnett, who is blind, helps organize a major fundraiser for the local Canadian National Institute for the Blind -- the annual Dine in the Dark.

Bonnett said the local Rotarians from the Winnipeg East AM club help the event in an important way: "They sell the tickets. They put butts in the seats. That's huge for us because they are $100 per plate and that's not easy to sell these days.

"And once the people are here, whether it's five minutes or an hour, they get a glimpse of what we go through every day."

Most of the time, Rotary clubs act individually to help local groups. But the annual Rotary Career Symposium, a two-day event for students, educators, unemployed and underemployed adults, brings all of the clubs together. It attracts more than 11,000 people to more than 200 booths.

Ross said his club raises money for organizations by hosting an annual golf tournament and they sell coupon books.

As well, a past member created an endowment fund for the club years ago, which now stands at $1 million and helps fund its donations.

Thompson, whose home club is Winnipeg-Charleswood, said its major fundraiser is an annual lobster dinner that normally serves more than 600 people.

To encourage future growth, Rotary has organized Rotaract clubs to bring post-secondary students into the fold as well as Interact clubs for high school students.

"It's good, because we have a lot of programs that support youth," he said.

Thompson joined Rotary in 1992 after spending 10 years as a ringette coach.

"When my kids didn't need me as a coach anymore, I decided to do something for me," he said.

Thompson said he joined Rotary because of something simple: "I was asked. I still tell that to other Rotarians -- we have to keep asking people.

"I always tell people, 'don't join Rotary with the idea it will enhance your business,' but when I do something like look to have my car repaired, of course I deal with Rotarians. I know them."

Wilf Wilkinson, a Rotarian who hails from Trenton, Ont., and who was president of Rotary International in 2007-08, said he has travelled to Rotary clubs around the world so he knows "there's no doubt in the Rotary world we see Winnipeg as leading the way internationally.

"In the annals and history of Rotary, Winnipeg is certainly singled out. Winnipeg actually started meeting earlier, but by the time they decided to register, they became the 35th club instead of the 17th. And they did that because they heard a club in Dublin was going to be founded as the first international member. That's when Winnipeg members rushed their application in.

"It certainly helped that the application from England had to come by ship while Winnipeg's just had to go by rail," he added chuckling.

Wilkinson said Winnipeg also has another connection to Rotary. The organization's first non-American president, Leslie Pigeon in 1917-18, attained the office while he was a Presbyterian minister and Rotary member in Vancouver, but later became a Winnipeg member when he was a minister here.

Ross said if people want to help others, Rotary is a good place to go.

"We try to raise money to help in the community and internationally. You get contacts, but you also contribute to the benefit of the community."


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