I was barely 22 years old when my father said to me, “Son, you’re running the company now.” He owned a heating and air conditioning business in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, and his managing partner was leaving.
A business friend, Fred DiPiro, who was an executive with the Northern Illinois Gas Company, told me about a new club in town called Rotary that had just been chartered, and he wanted me to join. He tried to explain what Rotary was and eventually just said, “Let me take you to lunch.” When I arrived at the Rotary Club of Oak Lawn, I looked around the room and the average age of the men there was probably 45, which seemed really old to me then. But I did know a lot of them from being in business in town, so I joined.
The day I was scheduled to give a talk about my classification, I was scared to death; I’d never realized how fast a body could dehydrate. I talked about my business, but I didn’t dare mention that I liked to ride and work on motorcycles, which at that time had the stigma of Marlon Brando and his role in The Wild One. I felt that I didn’t fit in, so I just sort of faded away and thought that if I didn’t go back, that would work. Well, it didn’t work: Fred and two other Rotary club members showed up at my office shortly thereafter and wanted to take me back to the club, but I had another engagement that day. They then arranged with my secretary to block out all Monday lunches for the balance of the year. When they returned the next week, I told them that I would meet them at the club, but they said, “No, we’re going to drive you there.”
Over the next several weeks, the Rotarians encouraged me to hang in there, and I’m so glad I did. I had what I call my transitional experience – when I went from being just a member of a Rotary club to becoming a real Rotarian. Bob Norris, manager of a local organization serving children with disabilities, proposed the idea of hosting a Christmas party for the kids at a club meeting. We asked one of our more rotund members to suit up as Santa, and I was asked to help the kids off the bus. At that time, kids with severe developmental challenges were basically kept off the street, considered an embarrassment to their families, but here I was helping them with their coats and practically carrying some of them into the party. The experience grabbed me emotionally. We brought so much joy to the youngsters that day, I thought that if this is something Rotary can do, I can’t turn my back on it. From that point forward, I got involved with anything I was asked to do. (It’s hard to believe this is my 50th year in Rotary, with 47 years of perfect attendance.)
First came Interact. The district governor told our club about an idea to create a sort of mini Rotary club with high school students. It was decided that I, being the youngest member in the club, should take the lead. We organized an Interact club at the local high school and immediately expanded to six other schools. The Interactors became a powerful force in our communities; our district now has 33 Interact clubs. And then there was another program – Rotary Youth Exchange. I eventually hosted five exchange students, all of whom enriched the lives of my family, friends, and fellow Rotary club members. The following years brought new Rotary responsibilities at the club and district level. The more I did, the more I loved Rotary and its far-reaching impact.
In 1996, because of changes in my business, I joined the Rotary Club of Darien, which has been an enormous support to many local, district, national, and international projects. During and since my year as district governor, 1999-2000, my opportunities have expanded again, at the zone and international levels.
I’ve also enjoyed the fellowships in Rotary. I belong to the wine tasting, motorcycling, global history, and flying fellowships, and I am cofounder of the skiing fellowship. The camaraderie, similar interests, and Rotarian commonality make fellowships one of the hidden gems of Rotary and foster member retention.
I believe that one of the most important concepts for Rotary was the creation of partnerships through the polio eradication effort. That provided a foundation, and now partnerships, like those under the Future Vision Plan, have become the norm.
The most important projects for me are literacy-based. Our district’s first Health, Hunger and Humanity Grant project created a school in Angola, a country ravaged by a 27-year civil war. Through partnerships with Alfalit International Inc. (an organization based in Miami), the Methodist Church of Western Angola, the Rotary Club of Luanda, a number of Rotary districts in the United States and Argentina, and the Angolan government, land was donated; water, sewer, and electricity installed; buildings constructed; teaching and vocational materials purchased; teachers trained; and students educated.
In Panama, we partnered again with Alfalit. This project involved going into the mountainous northern regions to educate the indigenous people, who were poverty-stricken, afflicted with health problems, and didn’t speak Spanish. We sent teachers to educate the children and adults, and set up programs to teach them how to terrace the hills alongside streams to cultivate fish and rice. All of this out of a literacy project.
Once we began work in Panama, we stayed with it. We helped local Rotarians establish a pediatric burn clinic in Panama City with funds donated from Panamanian and U.S. clubs. While touring the facility, we noticed a special plastic material that advanced the healing process, and were told that it was the most expensive part of the treatment. I discovered that the Sammons Preston Corporation in Bolingbrook, Ill., made it. Fred Sammons, the original owner, was a former member of the Rotary Club of Darien. After a call to the company to explain our project, we arranged a huge discount on the plastic material. Just another example of the power and reach of Rotary – with energy and resourcefulness, you can make things happen.
One of the most gratifying projects came about by happenstance. My wife, Caryl, and I were returning from one of our trips to Panama in August 2005 when our Thursday flight was canceled because a storm named Katrina was threatening Miami. We arrived home the next day. Our daughter Rebecca, who lived outside Biloxi, Miss., phoned us two days later to say that she was under a mandatory evacuation order. That was the last contact we had with her until three days after the storm. Most of her belongings were salvageable, but her apartment was too damaged to occupy. Knowing that her life in Biloxi would never be the same, we decided to drive down and bring her back to Chicago. On the Friday before Labor Day, I emailed our district’s Rotary club presidents, saying we would be taking an empty pickup truck and trailer to Mississippi and asking if anyone had items to donate. By Friday evening, many Rotarians had shown up with donations, filling our garage; others had called to pledge cash. By Saturday morning, I had to send out another email saying that I needed help – too many items and not enough vehicles. In short order, a Rotarian came along with another truck and trailer, and then a construction semitruck. We ended up with a caravan of three vehicles and seven people, who traveled 2,000 miles round-trip in four days.
Along the way, we stayed with Mark Dierlam, a fellow past district governor from Montgomery, Ala. I called District Governor-elect Bob Greer, of Mobile, who directed us to a local church with a food pantry. When we arrived, the woman in charge started to cry; she was so relieved because they had just run out of food and supplies and could not meet their commitments. The next day, we worked with the National Guard in Biloxi, passing out food, clothing, and other necessities.
That project was a success, but the Gulf Coast was still devastated. After I returned to the Chicago area, I was so affected by what we had experienced, I couldn’t walk away. I connected with Past District Governor John Fair, of Louisville, Miss., and through him, with a lot of other Rotarians in clubs along the Gulf Coast. We sent out another appeal for clothing and various items; this time we filled a small warehouse. Randy May, then president of the Darien club, donated a driver and a semitrailer truck, which we filled; that was the first of three trips to the Gulf Coast, all with donated transportation, labor, and goods.
One of those trips led to a collaboration with Bob Kranz, of the Rotary Club of Long Beach, Miss., for another Katrina project. The local senior center and recreation center had been destroyed. Rotarians from the Chicago area – districts 6440 and 6450 – raised $100,000 in seed money, which, in a relatively short time, we turned into more than $4 million to construct a senior citizens/recreation center in Long Beach. We worked with Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie, Governor Haley Barbour’s office, ArcelorMittal Steel Company, and Rotary clubs and districts across the country. Out of a four-day trip to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina came an incredible achievement – all through the efforts of Rotarians.
When it comes to volunteering, it’s important to recognize that one person can’t solve the problems around the world. However, one small effort can return incredible results – that’s the power of Rotary. When I look back on my Rotary life, I think about the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Rotarians. I owe much of the success that I’ve enjoyed in my working life to the lessons I’ve learned, and so much of my personal fulfillment to the friends I’ve met, through Rotary.