For the Record: Ron Burton
President-elect Ron Burton Photo by Alyce Henson/Rotary International
Ron Burton gets up from his desk in his pin-neat corner office on One Rotary Center’s 18th floor. He wears a wide grin and offers a firm handshake, just this side of a shoulder grasp. Burton is a master at greeting people. He puts them at ease. This may be because he is remarkably comfortable in his surroundings – no matter what surroundings he’s in, we suspect. His engaging and immediate familiarity is flattering and disarming. It is difficult to maintain a sour disposition in his presence. He has an ebullient and outsize enthusiasm that is, as he intends, infectious. He doesn’t fidget when he speaks, but there’s something like a spring-loaded kinesis lurking when he appears to be sitting still.
Burton joined the Rotary Club of Norman, Okla., USA, in 1979 and has served as RI director, Rotary Foundation trustee vice chair, and International Assembly moderator. He has received the RI Service Above Self Award and the Foundation’s Distinguished Service Award. He is a founder and past president of the Norman Public School Foundation, and founder of the Norman Community Foundation. He is a member of the American Bar Association and is admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, he retired as president of the University of Oklahoma Foundation Inc., where he served for many years. He and his wife, Jetta, have two children and three grandchildren.
THE ROTARIAN: How did your involvement with Rotary grow, and did the job of RI president ever occur to you along the way?
BURTON: I almost terminated my membership about a year and a half after I joined the Norman Rotary club. I tell people that it was because I didn’t have a reason to go. It was just a luncheon meeting, and I already knew everybody in the club through my work at the University of Oklahoma Foundation. It was sort of a waste of two hours on a Thursday. The food wasn’t that good, and sometimes the programs weren’t that good, and there was nothing that made me feel like I needed to go. But the incoming president asked me to chair the Rotary Foundation committee, and that was sort of a hot button for me. Then I was selected to be club president for 1983-84. I said there were more qualified candidates, but they still voted me in.
Then I went to the international convention in Toronto. I remember going to the Royal York Hotel and being in a room a little bit bigger than this office. Diagonally across from me was the incoming president of Rotary, Bill Skelton, but I didn’t have the courage to introduce myself. I eventually got to know Bill personally, and we became good friends. Two years later, I was selected to be district governor, but I nearly turned that down too. There was a financial scandal involving the president of another state university foundation, who also was a Rotarian, and the media made the University of Oklahoma Foundation guilty by association. On 30 June 1987, at 10 p.m., two hours before I became district governor, I had my finger in my rotary-dial telephone, and I was poised to say I was not going to serve. I sat with my finger frozen there for 30 minutes, but I didn’t make the call. It was the best thing I ever did. I served as an RI director from 1998 to 2000, and after that, Past RI President Jim Lacy encouraged me to one day consider the job of president. That’s the first time I’d ever thought about the office. I thought, “If Jim thinks I can do that job, then I think I can do that job.”
TR: What is at the top of your to-do list?
BURTON: To get Rotarians busy doing the work of Rotary, to get them involved. It’s time to move this organization forward. I’m really putting this on my district governors. We’ve got to lead by example. The theme I’ve chosen is Engage Rotary, Change Lives. If you truly get involved in Rotary, it’s going to change your life. You can’t stop that. In that process of engagement, you’re going to change a lot of lives, and you can’t stop that either. I can’t imagine how many lives have been touched and changed by Rotarians over the years, but the life that’s going to be changed most of all is your own.
TR: There are many skills involved in being a leader in Rotary. Which ones are in short supply?
BURTON: To some extent, confidence – in the sense of, “If I do something, it’s going to make a big difference.” I think Rotarians are afraid of success. I’m trying to do something about that. I say this from the stage a lot: Membership isn’t my problem, it’s John’s problem; but John thinks it’s not his problem, it’s Linda’s problem; and Linda thinks it’s Larry’s problem. The fact is, it’s a problem for all of us. We’ve got to get that message through, from district governors to club members. That doesn’t mean that all Rotarians have great leadership skills, but they do have a responsibility to share what they’ve been given with others in the community.
TR: Every president has 12 months. How much good or harm can one person do in that time?
BURTON: I’d like to think a person can’t do much harm from the simple standpoint of how the organization is structured. You’ve got a Board of Directors and 34,000 autonomous clubs, which is probably the greatest insurance policy in the world, because many of the clubs, whether we like to admit it or not, are oblivious to what happens in Evanston. While that has some downsides, it also has upsides. And I don’t think anybody who could get to this level would want to do intentional harm to the organization. But I think you can do a lot on the good side, and I’m hoping my message gets people excited about their membership and eager to share that with others.
TR: Rotary puts a great premium on fellowship. What intensity of conflict between members is compatible with that?
BURTON: Boy, that’s a tough question. You’ve got religious issues, which are difficult to deal with, and political issues, which are probably the most divisive. At the institutes, I have seen religious factions who are skeptical of one another, but the fact that they are having a meal together and enjoying fellowship speaks volumes as to what Rotary can do.
TR: What is the most challenging accommodation or adjustment you have to make because of this job?
BURTON: Trying to find a happy balance between what you can do within the time constraints you face. Rotarians put a lot of demands on their president. It’s not about me. It’s all about the myth of the office, and I understand that. Rotarians need to understand that while we would love to visit every place we’ve been invited to, there’s only so much time. Would it be better to visit Brazil or Egypt? What would do the most good for the organization? Deciding how I can continue to raise the bar of Rotary International and make the greatest impact – that’s the challenge.
TR: Are there expectations for this office that you would change?
BURTON: The job is to be the head cheerleader and get the message out to the most important people in the organization: average Rotarians. I think it all happens at the club level. Rotary International is nothing more than an association of Rotary clubs. We need to be as responsive as we can, realizing that we’re not going to please everybody.
I think our job is to keep the myth. This is a special place. To come here, to take the tour, to walk into the president’s office, it’s like seeing Bill Skelton across the hall in Toronto again. We’ve got to preserve that, regardless of who’s sitting here.
TR: Some Rotarians – particularly younger ones – chafe at some of the traditions. Are there any that bother you? Care to name some?
BURTON: I personally don’t like fines. I know they’re accepted in clubs that are well established, and they raise a lot of money. If you tried that at my club, you’d be thrown out. I also think we need to be more flexible on classifications. That’s not to say we should let everybody in, but there are some qualified people we should try to reach. I think sexist jokes are highly inappropriate. Unfortunately, in some parts of the world, there’s still a lot of sexism. It’s been 26 years since Rotary first opened its membership to women, but only 18 percent of our members are women. What’s wrong with that picture? And racism is a concern. We need to be more inclusive than exclusive. Those are the things that bother me.
TR: Calling Will Rogers to mind – have you ever met a Rotarian you didn’t like?
BURTON: I’ve met some I don’t respect as much as others. I’ve met some who don’t follow The Four-Way Test as much as I would hope. It’s a hard thing to live by. You have to search your soul sometimes to answer those four questions truthfully. I think we need to put that back out in front of people.
TR: What’s the Rotary story least told?
BURTON: When we eradicate polio, Rotary will make the front page of the New York Times, but good news doesn’t generally sell. Local efforts, like giving money to Meals on Wheels or buying library books and reading to children, are what we need to be doing. That’s the untold story – and that’s the collective impact of Rotary.
TR: Do you have a recruitment speech?
BURTON: My recruitment speech is not a 30-second elevator pitch. It’s this: Let me tell you about this wonderful organization that I happen to be a member of. Rotary can change your life, because it will put you in contact with people in your community, no matter where you live. No two clubs do exactly the same thing, but on an international level, we’re about to eradicate polio. You have to be invited to join, but I can put you in contact with someone in your community. You can blindfold me in front of a map of the world, and I can throw a dart, and if it hits any piece of land, I will know somebody there and somebody there will know me. Where else can you have that kind of a relationship?
TR: You meet Rotarians from all around the world. How do you communicate when you don’t share the language?
BURTON: You find a way. It’s body language, it’s eye contact, it’s the sincerity that you feel and exude when you’re visiting people. In my case now, there’s usually an interpreter. In one speech, I told the audience that it’s time to get your “ask” in gear, but the interpreter didn’t hear the “k.” The audience died laughing. They loved it. In Rotary, you find a way to communicate.
TR: When visiting other cultures, you must sometimes be asked to don native dress or engage in a local custom outside your comfort zone. Where do you draw the line?
BURTON: Have you seen me dancing to “Gangnam Style” in Australia? Did you see me as Shakespeare, promoting the Birmingham convention? I’ve been known to do a bunch of pretty stupid things for Rotary. I want people to understand that I’m a Rotarian just like they are. I put my pants on one leg at a time.
TR: It’s 30 June 2014. What are you leaving on your desk for the next president?
BURTON: Nothing from the standpoint of surprises, I hope. I really believe the best days of Rotary are ahead, but we’ve got to start moving now. Between now and then, I’m going to give everything I have. I hope to leave a stronger organization to RI President-nominee Gary C.K. Huang, and he’ll take it higher. As I’ve said to the governors, if we become the first class in which each of us makes a contribution to the Foundation, we’re challenging Gary’s class to do the same and every Rotarian to join us. We hope we’re not the only class to do this, but we will always be the first class.
TR: What should readers know about you?
BURTON: I hope people see that I’m just an average guy, a Rotarian just like they are. There’s one thing about me that you have to understand: If you ask my opinion, you’re going to get it, and I don’t generally change my mind. That doesn’t always make everybody happy, but I have to look at this face every morning when I shave, and I have to live with myself, so what you see is what you get.