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Rotary History

Some of Rotary’s most memorable conventions 

Since 1910, the Rotary convention has combined fellowship with Rotary business and inspired attendees with notable guest speakers and entertainers, workshops, and messages from Rotary leaders.

Hear 1978-79 RI President Clem Renouf announce the 3-H program at the 1978 convention in Tokyo.

On 15 August 1910, Paul Harris convened the first Rotary convention. At the time, there were 16 clubs in the United States. They shared the Rotary name and had similar objectives, but no central office or constitution. 

“This is going to be a convention in which we will get down to business and endeavor to launch the National Association of Rotary Clubs. We need the best thought and cooperation of every single man who is here,” Harris told the 60 registrants assembled at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. “We are going to try and have a good time as we go along, that is, we are going to intersperse enough good time so that you will not remember it as a sad occasion; but nevertheless, the primary purpose of this convention is to transact business.” 

In Rotary’s early years, the convention delegates debated and voted on changes to Rotary’s Constitution and Bylaws. As membership and convention attendance grew, this process evolved, and in 1977, the Council on Legislation became Rotary’s legislative body. The convention remained the main event for meeting friends, celebrating accomplishments, and discussing the future of Rotary. 

Many Rotary milestones and memorable moments are associated with a convention:

  1. 1917

    At the convention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, outgoing President Arch C. Klumph inspired the creation of The Rotary Foundation when he gave a speech proposing “endowments for the purpose of doing good in the world.” Convention delegates changed the constitution to allow for an endowment fund — the precursor to The Rotary Foundation. To celebrate the Foundation’s centennial, the convention returned to Atlanta in 2017.

  2. 1921

    Delegates added the promotion of peace and goodwill to Rotary’s Constitution at the convention in Edinburgh, Scotland, the first held outside the United States. 

  3. 1931

    Austria created the first commemorative postage stamp honoring Rotary on the occasion of the convention in Vienna. Many other countries have since issued commemorative stamps to coincide with Rotary conventions, including Brazil, Japan, and Germany.

  4. 1945

    In January, the U.S. government issued a directive limiting the size of meetings that involved travel from communities outside the meeting location. Rather than request an exemption, Rotary held the 1945 convention in Chicago as four separate meetings from 31 May to 19 June. Total attendance was 141 — the second smallest in convention history. 

  5. 1978

    Rotary President Clem Renouf announced a new grant program to improve health, alleviate hunger, and enhance human and social development at the convention in Tokyo. Members would use the Health, Hunger and Humanity grants to create access to clean drinking water, support literacy programs, provide medical care, and more — setting the stage for today’s global grants. 

  6. 1980

    Albert Sabin, the developer of the oral polio vaccine, spoke at the Rotary Convention in 1980 and again in 1985. Both times, Sabin stressed the importance of mass vaccination campaigns. 

  7. 1988

    Rotary began its PolioPlus campaign with an initial fundraising pledge of $120 million. At the convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, Rotary announced that almost $220 million had been raised. When contributions and pledges from late-reporting clubs were tallied, the campaign had raised $247 million. 

  8. 1989

    Rotaract members gathered for the first Rotaract Preconvention in conjunction with the convention in Seoul, Korea.

  9. 2004

    The convention in Osaka, Japan, set a record for largest number of paid attendees, drawing 45,381 people. Sadako Ogata, a former Ambassadorial Scholar and United Nations high commissioner for refugees, recalled her time as a scholar and its impact on her efforts to understand the causes and consequences of conflict.

Hear Albert Sabin describe his recommendations for the elimination of polio at the 1980 convention. His call for repeated, well-organized community campaigns was not embraced by some heath organizations at the time, but has since become an essential and well-known part of Rotary’s progress in the fight against polio. 

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