Illustration by Greg Clarke
I went to my first Rotary convention when I was 13 years old. My uncle was a district governor and my dad was a district governor, and for our family vacations, my mom and dad would take us to Rotary conventions around the world. The other day I found my registration badge for the 1959 RI Convention in New York City and for the 2009 convention in Birmingham, England – a 50-year difference.
At the conventions, my dad always volunteered to be a sergeant-at-arms. One year, the chief sergeant-at-arms, a gentleman from Kentucky named Mac Albright, leaned over and said to me that if I was going to stand there with my daddy, he was going to make me a junior sergeant-at-arms. They don’t even have junior sergeants-at-arms. I stood there with Daddy, and we were near the president and the directors and trustees, and that’s how we began to meet those wonderful folks.
My wife, Jane, and I continue to attend conventions as sergeants-at-arms. The convention in New Orleans will be my 34th. President Ray Klinginsmith is changing the name from a sergeant-at-arms to a Rotary guide because that’s what we do: We guide Rotarians on where to go and what to do, and we are the cheerleaders for the International Assembly and the Rotary convention. I’ll be chief this year for President Ray. I look forward to volunteering because you enjoy the convention a lot more that way. It becomes a team effort.
Traveling to those conventions while I was growing up changed my life, inspiring me to become a farm exchange delegate. I went to India and lived with A.K.D.B. Gobalakrishna Raja and his family in Tamil Nadu, and he came and lived on our little farm in eastern North Carolina. He became president of his Rotary club the same year I was charter president of the Rotary Club of Morehead City-Noon. He was a district governor in 1985-86, the same year I was a district governor. When he had a massive heart attack and passed away in 1995, I immediately went to India to be there for the Hindu final rites. Later, his son got married and asked me to stand in for his daddy at the Indian wedding.
My parents set me on a path of saying yes to opportunities to serve. When I was 28, our home caught fire one early morning at the end of March. We lived out in the country, and my mother did not survive. The first truck that arrived while we were standing outside looking at the fire and the debris was a Salvation Army vehicle. Major Richard Bergan, who was in the Rotary Club of Kinston, stepped out of it and brought Daddy and us some coats and shirts. He also provided food for the volunteer firemen. From that time on, I stood with my dad as he rang the Salvation Army bell with his Rotary club.
Jane was later asked to serve on our local Salvation Army board. We continue to ring the bells, and she continues to visit the Salvation Army in Kinston almost every day, and we became certified volunteer first responders. Through the Salvation Army and a Baptist men’s organization from North Carolina, we spent 10 days at ground zero after 9/11. We went into residential buildings that surrounded the area, wearing masks and special clothing, to assist before the people who lived there were permitted back.
Through the Salvation Army, we’ve also been to the Gulf Coast, to Florida, and to Texas to provide hurricane relief. On one of the last days we were in Galveston after Hurricane Ike, a car drove up, and a little girl got out of the back seat. She came running up to the canteen where we were handing out food, carrying a plastic bag. She said, “In this bag is some applesauce and some canned meat and some canned corn. I know it won’t feed everybody, but thank you folks for feeding my family when we didn’t have anything last week.” Things like that give you the energy and the continued excitement and enthusiasm to reach out one more time. You never know who you’re going to touch. And that’s the beauty of Rotary too.
In our own town, Jane and I found out that a homeless man had been denied entrance to the bathrooms in some of the stores, so we gave him a key to our business. He could come in and use the bathroom, and when it was hot at night in the summertime or cold in the wintertime, he could come in and sleep on the floor of the office. His name was Thomas. We even had a portable toilet installed so that he could go anytime he wanted to, without worrying about anything. He has now passed away – he froze one night on his way to our business. He had the key in his pocket.
I was denied employment out of college because the company I interviewed with said I looked too old and my hairstyle – I was bald with “fringe benefits” – was not appropriate for the financial industry. I talked to my daddy and my uncle about it, and we started the Bald Headed Men of America. The next thing I knew, it was about the only organization that was promoting a positive image of baldness. We were interviewed by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and television outlets in England and Japan. We had the opportunity to be on Oprah and Sally Jessy Raphael and Phil Donahue. I think every time our organization gets written about, we get a letter or call from someone thanking us.
For the last several years, I’ve spoken to Rotarians at presidents-elect training seminars, district conferences, and other leadership workshops all over the country. It’s an opportunity for me to help reboot the spirit of Rotary. Many people have what I call Rotary Alzheimer’s – they forget why Rotarians exist: to serve in the community and to make a difference. If I can get a laugh and get people to realize there’s a bigger reason for being there than just coming for breakfast or lunch, then I get invited back. And that’s what I have enjoyed.
When I was growing up, I would go to the Boys & Girls Club when I’d visit my grandmother in Norfolk, Va. A man named Earl Gresham and several members of the Rotary Club of Norfolk would come in the afternoon and talk to us about the responsibilities of becoming a man. I always wondered why this successful businessman who owned big cranes that built big buildings would take time to come to the Boys & Girls Club to help teenagers. And so I went to the Boys & Girls Club in Pensacola, Fla., and told the unit director that I’m a past president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Coastal Carolina in Morehead City, and I just came by to share and to be with the kids for the afternoon. When I was leaving, a little boy came up and said, “Would you come back tomorrow?” Here I am halfway across the United States, and all I did was take a few hours and maybe make a difference in the life of some little kid I didn’t even know.