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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 2, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 5
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Thank You, Rotary International

Where I was raised, in the central valley of California, Rotary was an important organization, typical of the kind of voluntary associations that foster a sense of community in America. My late father-in-law was a dedicated Rotarian, and over the years I have had the privilege of speaking to a few Rotary clubs.

I've been thinking about that a lot lately since I read Robert Putnam's provocative book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Putnam cites much compelling evidence that the electronically connected, highly mobile life of people today has increasingly isolated them from interacting with their family, friends, neighbors and democratic organizations.

That's why the legacy of strong organizations like Rotary is more important than ever.

I still recall vividly my experience driving 60 miles through a snow and wind storm, temperature 25 degrees below zero, to Waseca, Minn., a small farming community in the southern part of the state, to speak to the local Rotary club.

Ordinarily, with such a horrendous winter storm, I would have called up and canceled my appearance. However, the University of Minnesota, where I was serving as head of Health Sciences, had recently closed a small campus in Waseca, and there was understandably more than a little resentment of the big university from the north ignoring the needs of the community. So, I decided it was important for me to make the trip.

Just before the turnoff to the town of Waseca, the road became so slippery with ice that a heavy crosswind literally blew my Explorer off the road. I called 911 on my cell phone, and the operator told me, "The weather is so bad, I don't think the emergency crews are going out today!" Fortunately, a power company crew driving by spotted my car teetering precipitously over the edge of the road and stopped to help. Together, we were able to push the car back onto the road. I drove at 15 miles an hour for the remaining 5 miles into town. I fully expected nobody else to show, but as I passed through the empty bar to enter a back room of the restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to see the audience packed with Rotarians eager to hear what I had to say.

In the years since that visit, my only contact with Rotary has been to occasionally see one of its signs at a restaurant or hotel on my travels. In my mind's eye, I would see a group of small-town (mostly) professional men and a few women, meeting weekly at a local restaurant, gradually dwindling in numbers and unable to survive into the 21st century. I assumed that perhaps they were suffering from the lack of commitment that Putnam chronicles so distressingly in Bowling Alone.

I was therefore surprised and relieved to learn recently that Rotary International continues to thrive. And I was very pleasantly shocked to learn something even more interesting and impressive: Rotary International is the largest single contributor to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In 1985, Rotary made a historic commitment to immunize all of the world's children against polio; since that time, it has provided in excess of $600 million and mobilized hundreds of thousands of volunteers for that effort. It has helped to generate funding from U.S. and European government agencies, and has played a major role in advocacy for polio eradication. More than 1 billion children have been immunized through this program.

Like the smallpox eradication initiative, led by Johns Hopkins' own D.A. Henderson, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has made a huge difference in the world's health. Since 1988, when polio afflicted about 350,000 children annually, the incidence of the disease has declined more than 99 percent. Starting with dozens of countries in which polio was endemic, today only four — Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — remain in that class.

According to Rotary's Web site, the first club was established in Chicago in 1905 by Paul Harris, an attorney who wished to recapture in a professional club the same friendly spirit he had felt in the small towns of his youth. The name "Rotary" derived from the practice of rotating meetings among members' offices. The organization is dedicated to serving communities in need, expressed through its motto, "Service Above Self." An endowment fund, set up by Rotarians in 1917 "for doing good in the world," became in 1928 the not-for-profit Rotary Foundation, which today receives contributions of more than $80 million a year to support its humanitarian programs, such as the Polio Eradication Initiative, as well as educational programs to promote international understanding.

I know there are many very worthy organizations providing important services to the unfortunate and underserved, so I apologize for discussing just one. But I thought my readers would find that the image of Rotarians throughout the world, including those in rural towns like Waseca, committed to eradicating polio is an inspiring story.

Raising more than $600 million and dedicating tens of thousands of volunteer hours to one of those "big, audacious, hairy goals" in the service of humankind warrants special attention! So, kudos to Rotary International, a thriving organization of people dedicated to doing well by doing good.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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