Colonel James (Big Jim) Wheeler Davidson
James Wheeler Davidson. Rotary Images
Among Rotarian legends, few figures stand as tall as James Wheeler Davidson, the man Paul Harris dubbed the Marco Polo of Rotary. Although his moniker, “Big Jim,” referred to his physical stature, it also reflects Davidson’s accomplishments in spreading the Rotary movement from the Mediterranean to the South Seas. While it would be hyperbole to call Davidson a mountain of a man, there is in fact a mountain in the Canadian Rockies named for him.
Born in Austin, Minnesota, USA, in 1872, Davidson was a persuasive, entrepreneurial type with an appetite for travel and adventure. At age 18, he met Arctic explorer Robert Peary and prevailed on him to let him join his 1893 expedition. Even a case of frostbite suffered on the journey -- that would necessitate three surgeries on his foot and leave him with a lifelong limp -- didn’t diminish Davidson’s ardour for adventure. By 1895, he was off to the Far East, having talked himself into a job reporting on the First Sino-Japanese War for a newspaper syndicate that included the New York Herald.
During the 10 years he spent in Asia, Davidson was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese emperor for an act of bravery; wrote an acclaimed book; worked for the U.S. Foreign Service in Formosa, Shanghai, and Manchuria; and was employed by the Russian government to report on the economic potential of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
On his voyage home, he met the Dow family of San Francisco, taking a particular interest in 25-year-old Lillian. So, after visiting his mother and recuperating in Minnesota from a case of typhoid that he’d contracted abroad, he travelled to California the following year. He arrived, as only an adventurer’s luck would have it, on the day of the Great Earthquake.
As his daughter, Marjory, later related: "My father was always resourceful, and on being told that all passengers had to get off the train in Oakland and could not under any circumstance proceed to San Francisco, he hid between the seats, and as he expected, the train proceeded down to the mole where the ferries were. He walked off the train and on to the ferry, trying to look official. On arrival, he learned that the Palace Hotel, where Mother’s family was staying, had burned down."
Eventually, Davidson found the family and within six months had persuaded Lillian to marry him. The couple settled in the new province of Alberta, and Davidson joined the Rotary Club of Calgary in 1914. Within a few years, he became club president, district president, and a member of the International Association of Rotary Clubs committee. In March 1921, the association's board asked Davidson and J. Layton Ralston, president of the Rotary Club of Halifax, to help extend
Rotary to Australia and New Zealand.
Ralston, who later served as Canada's minister of defence and minister of finance, recalled: "I had started off light-heartedly for a trip, and more or less incidentally to tell our friends Down Under about Rotary. But Jim was going to carry to them something new and fine, and he was going to see that they understood what it was and valued it and lived it as he did. . . . I learned more about Rotary in that three-week voyage with him than in my previous eight years of membership."
In that brief time, they established clubs in Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington, and Auckland. For Davidson, that trip was a foreshadowing of things to come. Seven years later -- after becoming a Canadian citizen, playing a key role in highway development in Western Canada, and chartering many Rotary clubs in the region -- Davidson accepted the assignment of organizing Rotary clubs in the Middle East and Asia.
In August 1928, he set sail from Montreal with Lillian and Marjory on what was to be an eight-month voyage. It turned out to be a nearly three-year odyssey during which Davidson chartered 23 clubs in 12 countries, from Turkey to Thailand. Davidson's health began to fail soon after their return to Canada in 1931, and he died in July 1933 at the age of 61. In their Christmas card that year, Jean and Paul Harris paid tribute to Jim Davidson’s dedication, writing: "When he returned home, it was manifest that he had given more than three years -- he had given his life as well. . . . His memory will be revered by legions; his work more admired as the passage of time lends broader perspective."
See a photo gallery of Davidson in the July Historic Moments.