Life and times of Paul Harris
Boyhood in Vermont
Harris at age three, around the time he moved to his grandparents’ home.
Harris as a student at the University of Vermont in Burlington, 1886.
Paul P. Harris was born to George and Cornelia Harris on 19 April 1868 in Racine, Wisconsin, USA. George endeavored to support his family as a small-businesses owner, but he often relied on his father for financial assistance -- so much so that in July 1871, Harris and his older brother, Cecil, were sent to live with their paternal grandparents in Wallingford, Vermont. Harris later wrote, “Of all charges which might have been made against George and Cornelia, parsimony would have stood the least chance. They were both royal spenders.”
Harris was raised by his grandparents, seeing his parents only on the few occasions when they attempted to reunite the family. He grew to revere the family values that characterized the New England of his youth. In October 1928, when he returned to his boyhood home for the charter night celebration of the Rotary Club of Wallingford, he proclaimed, “Much that there is in Rotary today can be traced back to the good old New England family table.”
He was a mischievous child and an itinerant student. He "had no objection to reading assuming that the reading be something sensible" and "did not consider Pilgrim’s Progress nor Plutarch’s Lives in that category," Harris later recalled. He attended primary school in Wallingford and secondary school in Rutland, where he often played pranks and skipped class. He also attended Black River Academy in Ludlow but was expelled after only a few weeks.
After attending Vermont Military Academy, Harris enrolled at the University of Vermont in Burlington. In December 1886, he and three others were expelled for their conduct as members of an underground society. He later wrote that although he was innocent of the crime he was accused of, the expulsion was nonetheless justified.
I ably assisted in the organization of an underground society “for the subjugation of unruly freshmen.” The operations of this clandestine organization gave new color to life at the University. President Buckham became conscious of the change and banished four of the organization's most faithful workers from college. I was one of the four. I was not guilty of the particular atrocity for which I was expelled but my conduct richly deserved the punishment.
Harris spent the spring with a private tutor his grandfather paid for, and in the fall of 1887, he began his studies anew at Princeton University. His time at school was cut short, however, by the death of his grandfather in March 1888. Though Harris completed the semester, he did not return for the next academic year.
Harris's paternal grandparents, Howard (d. 1888) and Pamela Rustin (d. 1890), who married in 1826.