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What It's Like

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Ordinary Rotarians can find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. In their own words, they tell us what it’s like to...

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Ride a scooter across the Sahara

Ahmad Elzoghby 

Rotary Club of Alexandria Cosmopolitan, Egypt

Back in 2011, not many people were riding scooters here. But the car traffic where we lived in Alexandria was insane, so I and a few friends started to ride scooters as an alternative means of transportation.  

One day a friend recommended that we do a tour around Egypt, from where we live in Alexandria to Sharm el-Sheikh, which is 450 miles away. And I said, why not? A few days later, I thought, why not go from the very north of Egypt to the very eastern border, then go south and visit all the tourist sights? Egypt depends mainly on tourism, and at this time tourism was suffering because of the recent Egyptian revolution. So we thought we would do this to tell the world that Egypt is still a safe place to visit: We can tour the country on scooters and still be safe.

Interested in riding with Rotarians? Visit or learn about the International Fellowship of Motorcycling Rotarians at

I spoke to my Rotary club and they were very excited. They gave me the go-ahead to put this together. Three months later on 1 July, at the beginning of the Rotary year, the Cross Egypt Challenge was born. In that first year, there were only 14 riders – from Egypt, the United States, and Mexico. In 2015, we had 75 riders from 12 countries.

We started in October from the Plaza of the Library of Alexandria. We rode to Cairo and Tahrir Square, where the revolution started. After Cairo, we rode east to Suez and crossed into the Sinai Peninsula. We saw the Sinai Mountains, the Red Sea, the canyons, amazing sights. You would be riding in the middle of nowhere and there would be a Bedouin walking with two camels, and you would wonder, where is this guy going, where is he coming from? Why is he walking in this heat?

Next we went by plane across the Red Sea to Hurghada, then through the Eastern Desert to Luxor. This is a very tough desert. It’s all rock formations and a huge mountain range. The farther south you go, the hotter it gets. During the day it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The most difficult part is keeping yourself awake. People get tired easily in the heat, so their concentration is reduced.

From Luxor we rode on to Aswan and ended at the southern border of Egypt, at one of the Abu Simbel temples that were saved by the United Nations when the Aswan High Dam was constructed in the 1960s. 

There is always risk involved when you are on the road with two wheels. In 2015 we were very lucky and had zero accidents. But in some years we have had accidents. In the second year, we were riding in the Western Desert near the end of the trip. We had gone about 1,800 kilometers and I was behind the group trying to make arrangements with escort vehicles. After I finished, I was speeding to catch up with the group, and suddenly I saw the road was under construction. There was a 3-inch difference between the dirt and the asphalt. The last thing I remember was kissing the asphalt. I dislocated my collar bone; the injury is slightly visible even now. 

Everywhere we go, people stop us and talk to us. Egyptians are very friendly. They invite us to their house to drink coffee, to rest, to eat lunch. The best thing is that you get to see not only the tourist places. You’re diving into the culture. You’re diving into Egypt. 

– As told to Frank Bures

Be a POW

Asher Schroeder

Rotary Club of Maquoketa, Iowa

I was 18 when I was drafted. I turned 19 in Europe. I landed in Normandy a week after the D-Day invasion as a replacement for casualties that occurred during the initial assault. I was a part of the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944. That November, I was with a group of soldiers that was surrounded for four days by Germans in the Hürtgen Forest in Germany. I had been wounded and was lying in a foxhole. We had been cut off from all supplies – ammunition, food, water, and medical supplies. The officer in charge decided to try to get the able-bodied out. They took off very early one morning and left 14 of us wounded behind.  

Later that day, German forces came through. Once they satisfied themselves that we were wounded, they told us to get back in our holes and to stay there, “as the next German group that comes through might shoot you.”

We were moved out by German litter bearers and taken to a collection point for wounded. I was taken to Düren, where shrapnel was removed from my wounded foot. Then I was moved to Siegburg, across the Rhine. They put me up in the attic of an old monastery, and I was there three weeks using crutches. I was lucky – the day after I left Düren, U.S. planes mass-bombed the city and flattened it. I would have been killed if I hadn’t been moved.

Then I was moved to a recovery camp west of Cologne and was there during the Battle of the Bulge. We found out about it after a big dogfight had erupted over the prison camp and planes were shot down. An American pilot who parachuted out landed in our camp and told us what was going on. We had no idea the Bulge was underway, so that was our introduction to that.

After that, I gradually could hobble around and was moved again, to a place outside Bonn. I had crossed the Rhine three times since being captured, and the last time I walked across.

The conditions seemed to deteriorate more and more with each camp. We were infested with lice, we were given what the Germans called “soup,” which was just things boiled in hot water with no seasoning. Once, we found the jaw of a horse at the bottom of the pot. We argued over who would get to pick it over. There were no lights, no heat, no running water, just tarpaper shacks. In the last three camps, our accommodations were straw on the floor. We were packed tightly in with only our bodies to keep us warm. 

When I was liberated, I had on the clothing I was wearing when I was captured five months earlier. My weight had dropped from 210 pounds to 128 pounds. At 6-foot-4, I was a bag of bones.

I returned to the States in May 1945. They gave us a free telephone call home. I was on top of the world, and my mother came on the line. After we visited for a few minutes, I asked how come Dad didn’t answer the phone. She said, you didn’t get any of our messages or hear from Red Cross? I said, you mean he’s dead? She said yes, he died on the day you were liberated, April 2. So what was the greatest day of my life turned into the most terrible day of my life. 

– As told to Heather Maher

Come out as transgender... to your Rotary Club

Monica Mulholland 

Rotary Club of Queenstown, New Zealand

Like most transgender people, I realized quite early on that something was not right. I didn’t quite fit where people were trying to put me. When I was three or four, my mother caught me parading around in some of her dresses. It was made clear to me that this was not a good idea. She took it as a childhood prank, but looking back, I can see it was probably a lot more than that. I took everything underground after that, but it was there all the time.

It was a struggle. In the 1960s and ’70s, even gays were considered to be perverts or child molesters, so God knows what they would have said of transgender people. It wasn’t an option for me to come out.

I knew my girlfriend was the one for me when I was about 21. I didn’t have the words back then to tell her I was transgender, but I did alert her to the fact that I was different in that way. Later, we got married, and I always had my own stash of women’s clothing and makeup at home. My wife and I sometimes traveled together in the U.S. as a female couple.

Mulholland wrote a book about her experience titled Me! The Gift of Being Transgender

Five or six years ago, one of our close friends died of cancer, and it got me thinking: “If I’m ever going to come out, it’s got to be soon, because there isn’t a lot of time left.” So last year, my wife and I decided to come out. We expected a lot of pushback from the community and especially from our Rotary club because it’s very conservative. 

I went to tell the president and the incoming president. I sat them down and said, “Look, this is the story.” I showed them pictures of me as a woman, so they knew I wasn’t going to look like a hooker or something – people often get their information from TV or movies, and we’re not portrayed very well there. 

They said they were 100 percent behind me. The president said, “If anyone gives you grief, I will resign.” That was kind of amazing. Shortly after, the club had a barbecue. My wife and I didn’t attend, but I wrote something for the president to read at the barbecue about my coming out. There was stunned silence, followed very quickly by applause, which gladdened my heart when I heard about it.

Afterward, I got flowers and emails from Rotarians who showed their support. I didn’t expect that at all. When the first bunch of flowers arrived, I thought, “I can do this. This is going to work out.” 

I’ve had no innuendoes, no wrong pronouns, no snickering. I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. I have no regrets, no problems. And now, I’m the first transgender president of our club. 

– As told to Anne Ford

Room with Muhammad Ali

Nikos Michalis Spanakos

Rotary Club of Hallandale Beach-Aventura, Fla.

My twin brother, Petros, and I first met Cassius Clay at a tournament in Madison, Wis., in 1959. Here’s this young black kid, all of 17, making all these outrageous remarks. He told everyone he was going to make the team for the Pan American Games, then he was going to win a gold medal at the Olympics, then he was going to become the champion of the world. I thought he was delusional. Well, he didn’t make the Pan Am Games, but he did win the Olympic gold and he did become champ, so two out three ain’t bad.

We spent a lot of time with Cassius – back then he was known as Cassius Clay – and got to know him quite well. We lived together when we were training for the U.S. boxing team, and later we were roommates at the Rome Olympics. He would always make these sly remarks. When he called my brother he would say, “Has Nikos grown any?” Because I was a short guy. Sometimes he would call me “Mr. Greek.” We trained together and ate together, but because of segregation, we could never socialize. There was this invisible curtain between the white athletes and the black ones. It’s something I regret to this day. 

Cassius was so desperately poor. I remember that. He would offer to wash our underwear or our socks for 15 cents. He would give you a rubdown or what he called a “brain massage” for two bits. He was always begging for money, because he didn’t have much growing up.

He was not real popular among his teammates. Everything that came out of his mouth was about himself. And it’s hard to like someone like that. But I came to see that he was a decent human who was up against a lot. He came out of poverty. He was ostracized and belittled during his youth, so maybe all the boasting was his way of fighting back.

Of course, his saving grace was that he was a phenomenal athlete. He could do everything wrong in the book because he had such remarkable reflexes. He could drop his hands by his hips and get away with it. He had courage, too. I saw it in his eyes. He went up against some of the best pros and never took a step back. He would go punch for punch.

I’ll tell you a story I never told anybody else. When we were fighting in the Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago, they set up these cots so we could rest between fights, and I remember Cassius was on his knees next to the cot, praying. He was a Christian back then. He used to listen to these Southern Baptist radio programs and he would go berserk, screaming and shouting and running around. Whatever Cassius did, he wanted to make sure everyone knew about it. Later, down in Miami, he converted to being a Muslim. He was a deep believer when it came to religion.

A few years after the Olympics, I invited him to visit my students when I was teaching business in Brooklyn, N.Y., and he was telling them, you know, “You people don’t have any language.” He said a few words in Swahili, just to make the point, and an elderly black man in the crowd said something back to him in Swahili. He had no idea what the man had said, so he asked me who the guy was. “That’s our Swahili teacher,” I told him. He flashed that smile of his. “Nick, you’re trying to make me look bad in front of my people!” He knew he had been found out, but he made a joke out of it. That was pure Ali. 

He had such gifts. But he didn’t know when to quit. All the punches caught up with him. He got Parkinson’s disease in 1984 and lived with it for 32 years before he died. His brain became a prison cell. That’s where I really felt profound sorrow for him. 

What I admire most about Ali is his self-belief. He was this brash young kid who had an outrageous dream, and he made that dream come true. At 17, he knew he was going to be a world champion. Think about that. That’s amazing.

– As told to Steve Almond

Walk 444 miles with your father

Andra Watkins

E-Club of Southeast USA and Caribbean

My first book was called To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis. It was set along the Natchez Trace, a 10,000-year-old road that runs from Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn. In the 1700s and early 1800s, it was one of the busiest highways in America.  

As a publicity stunt for my book, I thought I would walk the Trace. I was going to do 15 miles a day, and I needed someone to drop me off and pick me up each day. Nobody could do it except my 80-year-old dad. He has a big, loud personality and says the same thing over and over again, and we’ve never gotten along. But I was desperate, so I thought, I’ll suck it up. 

The day the book launched, I started walking from Natchez. I did my 15 miles that day and the next. On the third day, it was 20 degrees and sleeting. I walked through hailstorms and tornado warnings – whatever the weather was, I was out there. My dad would drop me off and pick me up 15 miles later. 

One day he forgot to pick me up. He had driven 40 miles to this town to visit an 89-year-old woman he hadn’t seen since he was 12. She called him Hot Shot; that was his nickname growing up. He got all into that and forgot about me. 

After that we had probably the worst fight we had ever had. We were both ready to quit.

A couple of days later, he dropped me off at milepost 165. Around milepost 180, you have the darkest sky east of the Mississippi River. The sky is so dark, they put an astronomical observatory there. There is nothing else there. So I was at milepost 165, and I got sick. I got stomach cramps. I didn’t have a cellphone signal.

I walked two or three miles like that, then saw a field off to the right and collapsed in it. I thought, eventually maybe Dad will wonder where I am and come looking for me.

I ended up having three bouts of diarrhea next to a tree at milepost 167. I went into my backpack, and I hadn’t restocked my toilet paper that morning. So I ended up using Gatorade. (If you’re ever in that position, don’t do that, because it’s really sticky.) Then I walked down the road sobbing. I thought, as soon as I have a signal I’m going to call my dad to come get me, because this is a failure. Nobody cares about this. I haven’t sold that many books. This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever had. 

I walked two or three miles like that, then saw a field off to the right and collapsed in it. I thought, eventually maybe Dad will wonder where I am and come looking for me. It might be tomorrow, but I thought, I just can’t do this anymore. 

I was lying in a field of thousands of daffodils. It was the second week of March – spring on the Trace. Things were blooming. There were birds everywhere. And I thought, I’ve been doing this walk like I’ve been doing my entire life. I had been rushing through every day to get finished. I just wanted to get done, and I was missing all the amazing things that had been happening to me.

I started thinking about all the birds migrating around me. A deer had come out of the woods once a foot or two away from me. People had told me their stories about the Trace. So I got up and kept walking. And I hope I came out of that field a different person.

But it was the five weeks with my dad that ended up being the reason I was glad I did it. Because in the end we connected, for probably the first time. He told me stories that I hadn’t heard. We made all these memories together. And now that’s what I’ll have when he’s gone.

• Andra Watkins is the author of Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace.

 – As told to Frank Bures

Recover from a traumatic spinal injury

John Miska

Rotary Club of Bixby, Okla.

“No! Stop! No!” Those were the last words I shouted before being struck by a car turning into my bike lane. I was riding on a quiet neighborhood road on the Pacific coast in California. I had no time to avoid the car and nowhere to go.

The impact ripped my bike away and sent me careening off the top of the car like a rag doll. Everything went into slow motion as I seemed to drift to the ground while looking skyward. Then I slammed onto the street, landing hard on my back, neck, and right arm and shoulder. The pain arrived instantly. Lying on my back and writhing in agony and shock, I looked at my right hand, certain that I would see it in flames. Citizen responders called 911 and offered me comfort. 

Within minutes it happened. It was as if a tarp were being removed from my body and taking all of my ability to feel and move. I knew something terrible had happened. I did not know if I would die or be paralyzed for the rest of my life. 

Whisked away by ambulance, I was then helicoptered 30 miles to Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla Trauma Center. MRI and CT scans revealed multiple spinal injuries. Many patients with severe trauma to the cervical spine have severed the spinal cord, an irreversible condition. I did have fractures in my neck, but the main concern was a ruptured disc that was smashing my spinal cord.

At this stage, the medical decision-making became complicated. Typically, a patient with a complete spinal cord injury does not benefit from surgery because the damage is permanent.

Furthermore, I was medically unstable due to spinal shock, which was causing my blood pressure and heart rate to fall to dangerous levels. Despite these odds, neurosurgeon Scott P. Leary made it clear to me and my wife, Sheri, that a procedure to decompress my spinal cord and stabilize my cervical spine was imperative. Even with the surgery, though, he told us that I had a less than 1 percent chance of any form of recovery. In so many words, Leary informed us that I was destined for a lifetime in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.

The morning after surgery, to everyone’s amazement, I was able to feel my entire body. I could wiggle my fingers and toes and even lift my waist slightly off the bed. This was not supposed to happen. In fact, no case like it had been documented. By the fifth day in intensive care, physical therapists had me standing for minutes at a time. It was like climbing Mount Everest.

By day seven, I transferred to Rehabilitation Center at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas for 14 days of intensive rehabilitation. I arrived by ambulance with a nasogastric tube, a catheter, an intravenous drip, and a neck brace. The goal was to reteach my body enough motor skills and active daily living tasks to allow me to return home, either in a wheelchair or with a walker.

When I arrived, I didn’t have the strength or ability to sit up on my own. I had taken a hard impact on my right side, and on day one of rehab, I couldn’t complete a right-hand curl with my 3.4-ounce cellphone. I had to relearn to sit up, transfer to and from my bed to a wheelchair, stand up, sit down, and ultimately walk again. 

I learned the golden rule of spinal cord injury rehab: no bending, lifting, or twisting. Terrified of re-injury, I followed that rule strictly. The days were intensive, packed with different kinds of therapy. This left me so exhausted at the end of the day that, for the first few days, it was an effort to stay awake through visits from my wife and family. I focused on setting goals. Eleven days after my accident, I was determined to take my first unassisted steps. Under the watchful eye of Maria, a physical therapist, I pushed myself up out of the wheelchair between a set of parallel bars, steadied myself, and took my first steps. I will remember those steps for the rest of my life. The more I took, the more I wanted to keep going.

After 14 days of intensive occupational and physical therapy, and 21 days from the accident, I walked out of the rehabilitation center on my own power with only a neck brace – no wheelchair, no walker, no cane.

My healing is a story of the perfect combination of medical science, a miracle, and motivation. However, millions of people suffer from paralysis. That’s why I created Ride for Cords, a global fundraising event to support the research for a cure. Today, I dedicate my time to speaking publicly about my experience, and to cherishing every day.

Zip around at 93

Harold Robson 

Rotary Club of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

We were just two weeks short of 67 years of marriage when Joan died.

We had gotten to know each other in 1938, when we were teenagers and members of a Methodist church in a London suburb. But then the war came along. I joined the army in 1941, and though I spent time in Italy and Greece, we kept up our communication. Fortunately, I came out of the war comparatively unscathed. We were married in 1948.

The zip wire took place from the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. I was strapped into a harness and hooked up, and then it dawned on me what was going to happen. I was sitting on the edge of the bridge with a drop of about 130 feet down to the water, and there was a mild push behind me to get me going. It was great fun. The zip wire itself was nearly 700 feet long, and you’re going about 25 to 30 miles an hour. There were a lot of people watching – nearly all of my family and quite a few members of my Rotary club and church – so I waved at the crowds as I went, dangling off the wire. It took less than a minute to complete.

When I got to the landing point, I knew that the media man from Alzheimer’s Society was going to be there, but what I didn’t know was that he had arranged for reporters from national agencies to be there too. There were headlines in the national papers saying things like “Fearless Harold” or “Oldest Brit Ever to Take On a Zip-Wire.” One of the reporters asked me, “Would you do it again?” and just as a complete throwaway, I said, “Oh, yes, I’ll do it when I’m 100.” To my astonishment, that came out in the Sunday paper.

I thought that if I was lucky I might raise £1,000. The story went on the internet, and donations came in from all over the country. From friends but also from many people I have never met. It must have struck a chord with them because they had experiences with relatives with this horrible illness. In total I’ll have raised well over £7,000, equal to about $9,000 or $10,000. The week after the zip wire, Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland honored me as a Champion for Change at the House of Lords. 

From a personal point of view, the experience did me a tremendous amount of good. I felt that I was doing something positive in Joan’s memory, so it helped with the grieving and emotional process. When you’ve been married for 67 years, it’s a bit of a wrench.

Joan was a very steadying influence. She was well-loved by everybody at church and the Rotary club and all the rest. I tended at times to go off on a tangent, but she kept me in check. She would have been very supportive of my experience on the zip wire, though I think she would have been a bit nervous about it. I’m quite sure she was with me when I did it. 

– As told to Diana Schoberg

Skate on thin ice

Jake Maarse

Rotary Club of South Nepean, Ont.

When I was nine years old, we had a severe winter in the Netherlands, where I grew up. That’s when I started skating. There was so much ice you could go from town to town. Every town had its own skating club, and it became a big social event. That whole country is upside down for skating. They cancel schools when there’s enough ice.

Here in Ottawa, we have the Rideau Canal Skateway, which is almost 5 miles long. The ice has to be 12 inches thick or they say it’s unsafe. But over there, they skate on very thin ice. I’ll skate on 3 or 4 inches of ice myself. I’ve fallen into open water, that’s true. It happens especially on lakes, where there are certain spots that always want to open up. You probably don’t want to follow me when I go skating. 

The adrenaline is so high. You have to act fast or you might not make it. I always bring ice picks so I can drag myself out and get to shore.

But so far I’ve been able to get myself out. The adrenaline is so high. You have to act fast or you might not make it. I always bring ice picks so I can drag myself out and get to shore. It’s not really as dangerous as you think, as long as you’re sensible. And you have the ice picks. Well, you do get cold.

I believe in sports as a way of bringing communities together. Skating can do that. In Austria, they have races with 1,000 skaters that last all day. They set up little rest stations with hot cocoa and sandwiches. People pretty much skate until they fall over. We have a club here in Ottawa, and we’ve got a track where people of all ages can come. It’s a place where divisions between people come down.

For a few years, I’ve been working with my old club, the Rotary Club of West Ottawa, to organize long-distance races to help fight polio. I’ve skated 300 miles over a few days. You don’t have to be a superstar to skate a long distance like that. You just have to be patient and use strategy and adjust, because you’re always going to go through your highs and lows. 

I remember one time, I still had to do 50 miles and I hit a crack so hard it bent the blade of my skate. The next few miles weren’t easy. But then I found a different stride and it wasn’t so bad. It’s like sailing: You have to work the elements to get the most out of your energy. When the ice is smooth and the wind is at your back, you want to have a nice, long stride. But if you hit rough patches and the wind is against you, you shorten up, like downshifting in a car.

I actually feel OK the day after a long race. But the rest of the week I feel pretty weak. The main thing people don’t realize is that you’re mentally exhausted, because to skate more than 100 miles in a day, you have to be focused.

In the winter, people can get a little down about the weather. That’s when I head to the canal with my skates! I have the best experiences under the worst conditions. People think I’m nuts. But it’s beautiful to be outdoors in the elements. That’s when you can really get into the glide.

– As told to Steve Almond

Work with a therapy dog

Vanita Louie 

Rotary Club of San Francisco Chinatown

Moo Moo is a Brussels Griffon. That’s the kind of dog that Jack Nicholson has in the movie As Good as It Gets. She’s 9½ years old, and I’ve had her since she was three. I believe all dogs are special, but I’ve always known Moo Moo had a gift: She can sense when somebody is in distress. I saw that quality in her the first time we met. She was so alert and observant.  

Six years ago, I trained her as a service dog. She had to pass a series of four tests. Some dogs are trained to provide a physical service, like being a seeing-eye dog. Moo Moo is a therapy dog. It’s her instinct to comfort people, especially if they have a special need or ailment.

She has a schedule. She visits the Kaiser Permanente hospital and the UCSF Medical Center every month, and she visits autistic children at public schools twice a month. She sees people who are very ill with cancer and other ailments. She’ll walk right up to a person who is lying in bed with their eyes closed and she’ll nudge them with her paws.

When we visit schools, we read to kids who often have trouble controlling their bodies. They have so much energy. And Moo Moo is able to deal with that. She lets them pet her. She’s very relaxed, and it rubs off on them. She knows, This is what I need to do to help these kids calm down. In those moments she becomes everyone’s dog.

I always wonder why Moo Moo doesn’t play with balls or run around. If I took her to the park and removed her leash, she wouldn’t run around with the other dogs. It’s like she doesn’t know she’s a dog. Even the teachers notice that – how much she acts like a human. 

When I bring her to Rotary meetings, she sits quietly. When she hears the bell ring, she sits up because she knows the meeting has started. She’s quiet and attentive. And she knows the meeting is over when the bell rings again. 

She provides a lot of happiness at our meetings. I’m the president of the Rotary Club of San Francisco Chinatown, and the members are always asking me, “When is Moo Moo coming back?” If I don’t bring her, they ask why she’s not there. She also loves to get dressed up in her Rotary scarf for fundraisers and other functions. She loves partying. But when it comes to service visits, she puts on her therapy vest and that’s work time. 

You know how Rotarians are always trying to give back? I believe that’s how Moo Moo sees it – that it’s her job to bring moments of joy to people who are suffering. 

– As told to Steve Almond

Stand in for the RI president

Allan Jagger

Rotary Club of Elland, England

Each president of Rotary tries to meet as many Rotarians as possible. If he can’t travel to an event, he appoints another member to attend as his representative. So what’s it like to stand in for the president? I represented RI President K.R. “Ravi” Ravindran at a district conference in 2016, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a Rotarian. As the “RI rep,” I was briefed by the president, who asked me to deliver a message that would inspire Rotarians and guests to get more involved in service.

In March, I was with my wife, Rose, representing President Ravi at the District 9630 conference in Queensland, Australia. The conference was in Roma, a town at the far western end of the district that has some 15,000 residents, and the Australian Rotarians were quick to have me try local customs and skills.

There was a demonstration from an Australian whip-cracking champion (cracking a whip is a competitive sport Down Under), and I was chosen to join a lineup of volunteers to see who was best.

For this, I represented the RI president miserably.

Instead of cracking the whip by swinging it overhead, I somehow managed to whip myself across the back and buttocks – much to the amusement of everyone around me.

I also visited a heath facility sponsored by the Rotary Club of Roma. In this sparsely populated area, it falls on the community to provide many facilities as the local government doesn’t have the resources. Over the years, this 20-member club had built homes for the elderly and a health care facility. In partnership with the Australian health care system, the clinic provides secure accommodation for those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It was humbling to witness the care and loving attention given to the residents – care that would not happen if not for Rotary.

I have represented various RI presidents over the years, and it has been an honor each time. I’ve learned that the president must have the constitution of an ox, along with diplomacy and the ability to manage on a few hours of sleep in someone else’s time zone – yet it’s one of the best jobs in the world.

Be Vince Lombardi’s nephew

Steve Werner

Rotary Club of Denver Southeast

I had a very good relationship with my uncle. We’re from a big Italian family, so we always had Sunday dinners together when we all lived in the New York metro area. He would have a lot of fun teasing all the kids. He would want us to bring our report cards, and he always grilled us if we got anything less than an A. Then he would break into a big laugh and we would realize he was pulling our legs. At the same time, he always admonished us to do well in school, because he started as a teacher and education was big in our family. 

He was a tough person and he could come off as cutting, but he wanted everybody to give 100 percent. There’s that famous quote everyone attributes to him: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” But that’s not what he actually said. He said, “Winning isn’t everything; striving to win is the only thing.”

I was young when he started coaching in the pros. When we lived outside San Francisco and his Green Bay Packers would come out to play the 49ers, I would get to go to the practice on Friday, then to a huge reception that night. There would be another practice on Saturday, then the game on Sunday, and sometimes I would even be able to ride on the team bus to the airport, with my parents in a car behind the bus. 

I remember being on that team bus after a 49ers game. The Packers had won something like 42-3. There was a lot of talking and laughing, celebrating. But when my uncle got on the bus – he always got on last – he grabbed a microphone and just screamed at those guys. He told them they had played sloppy, that they hadn’t executed. He was angry because they hadn’t given their best effort. And they knew he was right. Those big guys just put their heads down. Nobody wanted to make eye contact with my uncle.

Another time, the Packers played the Colts and lost by a few points. I was on the team bus that time, too, and I was expecting my uncle to scream at his players again. Instead, he gave them a really positive pep talk. He said, “The clock just ran out on us. But you gave your best effort and I know that’s all I can ask of you.” I tell that story a lot, because it’s such a good example of my uncle as a coach and teacher.

I did feel a lot of pressure to play football. Unfortunately, I’m 5 foot 6 – about my uncle’s height and not as stocky – so I stopped playing when I was a sophomore in high school. He felt I should have stayed with it. I wasn’t surprised by that. I knew what he was like. But we had moved from New Jersey to Texas, and the players were so much bigger than me. I was giving away too much weight. 

We were living in Houston when my uncle passed away. The paper did a story about my mother, and some of the Rotarians of Houston called and talked to her about establishing an award in my uncle’s honor, with the proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. They asked her to be on the planning committee and made her an honorary Rotarian. That was the beginning of the Rotary Lombardi Award, which the Rotary Club of Houston gives to the outstanding lineman or linebacker in college. 

I knew my uncle had talked to Rotary clubs in Wisconsin, and those Rotarians in Houston really made an impression on me – so much so that I decided then to join Rotary. They were some of the top businessmen in town, and they were so nice and so devoted to service. I think I recognized [in them] the same philosophy that drove my uncle – that life is about dedication to a greater cause, about giving 100 percent. 

– As told to Steve Almond

Save someone from drowning

Rick Wilson

Rotary Club of Sebastopol, Calif.

I owned a whitewater rafting business in Rumsey, Calif., for 23 years. One day shortly after I bought it, there was a knock on the door. It was the sheriff saying there’s an emergency on the river and asking if I would loan him a boat. I said, “I’ll do better than that. I’ll come with you.” It didn’t take long to figure out I should be a member of the volunteer fire department. I coordinated rescues on the river for 15 years.

Living there, you never could totally relax. You didn’t know what hour of the day or night you would get called or what the problem was going to be. There were some weekends we didn’t have a call at all; some weekends we had five. Most often it was a rescue for somebody who was on the river on their own and didn’t have the right equipment. 

I remember one young man who had gotten thrown out of his boat, and his foot had gotten lodged between two rocks. When we first got there, he was standing, but we could tell that it wasn’t going to be long before he was going to topple over. You can’t really hear because of the roar of the river, so you just have to read how they’re doing by looking at their body language. If you study somebody closely enough, they’re going to give you clues. 

For example, when you approach somebody in distress, you don’t grab them with your hand, because a lot of times they get into a panic mode. Then they look at you like you’re a ladder, and all they want to do is climb you. You go out with a life jacket, something you can hand them, and that way you have a chance to gauge the look in their eyes. You can figure out: Is this person going to be helpful, or is this person so panicked that they’re going to do something stupid?

Anyway, while we were waiting for equipment, it became clear that the current was wearing him down and he wasn’t going to be able to keep his head above water. Rather than waiting for the equipment, I decided that I and another guy were going to go get this kid or he wasn’t going to make it. My job was to reach out and grab him and get him in the boat while the other guy was paddling. Luckily, we got him to safety. He was very grateful, and that was the end of it. Everybody took a deep breath and went back to work. 

When something like that happens, your adrenaline is up, and anyone who says it isn’t is a liar. When somebody’s life is in jeopardy, that’s where the importance of training comes in. You get into this mode where you’re almost on automatic pilot and you’re just reacting. You’re doing the things you’ve been trained to do over the years; there’s no time to rationally think about it. 

My experience with rescues made me believe that every child deserves to know how to swim. For 32 years, our Rotary club has taught every second-grade child in Sebastopol how to swim for free. We’ve taught more than 10,000 children over the years. When you join my club you get a mentor, and when my mentor looked at my CV and saw I had had a whitewater rafting business, he said, “I believe you’ll be helping with swimming,” and I said, “Yes, I will.” For every 100 children you teach to swim, you save a life. Ten thousand kids in 32 years – that’s a lot of lives. 

– As told to Anne Ford

Be in the middle of the ocean without a compass

Wally Wong

Rotary Club of Hilo, Hawaii

When you’re in the middle of the ocean navigating without GPS or even a compass, the most important parts of the day are sunrise and sunset. Every morning when you see the sun, you know exactly where east is. Between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the sun is straight above you, so you use the direction of the swells to stay on the course the navigator sets until you see the sun setting in the west. The navigator memorizes hundreds of stars and uses them to determine latitude at night and tweak course if needed. When it’s cloudy at night, you have to remember where the sun set and try to stay on that course using the winds and the swells.

I’ve done voyages like this on the Hōkūle’a [the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, the star of gladness], a double-hulled sailing canoe. It was built by the Polynesian Voyaging Society  in the 1970s to re-create a Polynesian expedition – to prove that Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific sailed to the Hawaiian Islands with a purpose. They likely set out to find fishing grounds and in the process found the islands, then went back and brought their families. 

At the time the Hōkūle’a was built, there were no traditional navigators left in Hawaii. So the Voyaging Society found a traditional navigator in Micronesia, Pius “Mau” Piailug. Piailug taught the wayfinding techniques – using the stars, sun, wind, and swells to determine direction – to the Hawaiian navigators of today.

In 1976, when I was a junior in high school, I was a canoe paddler. We had canoe races every summer. That year, the Hōkūle’a sailed down to Tahiti and back, its first voyage. It was a great experience for all of Hawaii. Later, I was paddling with leaders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. They were sailing down to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands as part of their Pacific Arts Festival in 1992. That was my first voyage.

About a dozen crew members sail on each voyage, with jobs ranging from navigator to cook to medical officer. On later voyages, I was the watch captain. You’re on watch for four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening. The watch captain makes sure the canoe is sailing safely, the crew is OK, and the sails and lines are all tight. Your main job is to make sure you steer the canoe in the direction that the navigator has chosen.

During the day, we’re always dragging lines to catch fish. If we don’t catch any fish, we have canned vegetables and meats, pasta, rice. But catching a fish is exciting because we’re doing scientific research with the University of Hawaii to see, when you cut it open, what the fish has been eating. We’re noticing that the fish are eating some plastic. Sometimes we’ll see a plastic bag or a plastic container just floating out in the ocean.

After we clean the fish and examine what it has eaten, that’s when the fun part comes. The first way we eat it is raw, cut into chunks and mixed with vegetables. Then you can sauté it or you can boil it and make it into soup on cold nights. One trip we caught two marlins at the same time. We had so much fish left over, we cut it up into little pieces and put it around the deck and let it dry so we had dried fish to eat.

When you get close to land after you’ve sailed for weeks, you look for land debris – leaves or twigs or manmade rubbish in the water – and look at the color of the ocean and the cloud formations. Clouds make a different pattern when they’re bunching up around an island. You also look for a certain type of bird that flies out in the morning to a fishing ground and then flies back to its home island in the evening. So if you see one flying toward you in the morning, the island might be back in that direction.

There was one trip where we were only 30 or 40 miles away from an island, but it was all clouded in. We sailed right past it. After sailing a couple of days, we made a U-turn and headed back up and found it. You’re never lost if you know where you came from. 

The Hōkūle’a is on a round-the-world voyage called Mālama Honua, which means “to care for our island Earth.” The goal of the voyage is to encourage people to work together to care for our planet and to teach a new generation of navigators and sailors to take the helm.

– As told to Diana Schoberg

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