Two years before the bell

My term as President of the local Rotary Club ended this morning. Below is my farewell address, written at the last minute to fill an unexpected gap in the agenda.

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A bit more than a year ago, incoming District Governor Subbiah Doraiswami asked me for ideas for his installation speech. I shared a few ideas with him, but I didn’t think that it was likely that he used any of them verbatim for the simple reason that our personal styles differ so greatly. A year later, I have had time to refine my thoughts, and I’d like to take a few moments to share them with you this morning, as my last act as your President.

As we prepare for the installation of new officers and to write the next paragraph in the history of our clubs, our district, and Rotary International, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the past, the present, and the future of Rotary.

Rotary was founded on February 23rd, 1905, which is just a few months more than 107 years ago. Rotary was born in a larger world; a world where parts of the map had not yet been filled in. Let us take a moment and consider some of the changes that have taken place since then.

In 1905, the world population was approximately the same as the current population of China, and less than the current population of India.

The life expectancy at birth for an average person born in 1905 was less than 32 years; today it is approaching 70.

Cars were rare and expensive in 1905; the first Ford Model T was three years in the future.

Telephones were novelties and useful only locally; the first transcontinental telephone call was still ten years away.

Radios had been invented, but the first commercial and news broadcasts would have to wait another fifteen years.

The first practical antibiotics were more than twenty years away. Most of the people who were alive in 1905 did not live to see vaccines for measles, mumps, chickenpox, meningitis, polio, and many other common diseases. Many of those people died of diseases that are no longer familiar names, or considered a threat to anyone with access to basic medical care or medicines that are now available for pennies per dose.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published several papers that established a foundation for a remarkable number of developments in physics, electrical engineering, and materials science, and providing mankind our first deep understanding of the true nature of the physical universe.

Politically and socially, the world was different as well. The median age of an American in 1905 was 23; today it is more than 35. In the United States, women would not be able to vote until more than another decade passed, and some minorities would not be guaranteed a fair vote for another sixty.

There is little question that we have come a long way, and it is a simple fact that Rotarians have played some role in a surprising number of these accomplishments. There is also little question that there is still far to go. While we should take pride in the progress of the last century, let us not congratulate ourselves prematurely or lose our focus. May these accomplishments not serve as labels for the pinnacles of our achievement, but rather milestones along the way, evidence of a steady habit, practiced daily, with diligence, persistence, and patience.

Because there is still much to do.

There is still war in the world. In recent years we have seen tyrants toppled by cell phones and laptops instead of by guns and bombs, but there are people dying violently this very morning at the hands of other tyrants.

There is still disease in the world. We are very close to conquering polio, and have made a start on malaria, but there are new diseases, like AIDS, treatment-resistant tuberculosis, and widespread obesity, each virtually unknown a generation ago, that are as dangerous.

There is still famine in the world. There is still injustice. There is still inequality. There is still ignorance, prejudice, and hatred. There is still much to do.

Where shall we begin? I have a suggestion.

One the defining characteristics of Rotary is the inclusive nature of our membership. Although this has, admittedly, not always been true in the past, at the current time Rotary is remarkably inclusive and free from discrimination. There are Rotarians from every imaginable nationality, religion, political philosophy, ethnicity, and other demographic category. But there are people who do not fit the mold of Rotarians, whose philosophies cannot be aligned with the principles of Rotary, and who feel no desire to become Rotarians or to take part in the sort of work that Rotarians seek to do. Who are these people, and why must we concern ourselves with them?

These are people who believe that there is nothing practical that they can do that will make any lasting and positive difference in the world. You may call them fatalists or nihilists, but most people in this category would not identify themselves as either. They are simply overwhelmed by a world in which most people feel, or are made to feel, inconsequential or powerless. They do not vote. They are not active in their community. They may be dissatisfied with some aspects of their world, but they feel that there is nothing worth the effort required to change anything. They feel that there is nothing they can do that will make them feel better about themselves, improve their lives, or make the world a better place. They turn inward, and become passive.

These are not bad or lazy people. They may be kind, honest, hard-working, and intelligent; good parents, good neighbors, and loyal friends.  What they are missing is the realization that they are surrounded by easy opportunities to improve their world.  They lack vision, or they lack direction, or they lack a support network. They have made the mistake of believing that world events are something they watch on TV; that history is something they learned in school; that progress, or simply change, is the responsibility of someone else.

They are mistaken.

Neither change nor progress is inevitable. Their history is influenced by their choices, and never in history has the average man had more opportunity to change the world and influence events, for better or for worse, than at this moment.

As I step down from my office, I offer you a challenge, a challenge that I feel that Rotary must accept if it is to remain vigorous and relevant for another hundred years. It is not to conquer a new disease or bring an end to illiteracy, or any one of the many other laudable goals that Rotary has set for itself. Other people will lead those efforts, and I wish them godspeed.  My challenge is simpler, and less glamorous. I have not found a way to express as an elegant or inspirational slogan, but perhaps one of you will.

My challenge is this: spread the message of Rotary. Show the world that people working together on sustained, coordinated projects can make the world a better place. We have long lists of successful projects; more than a century of evidence that shows this to be true time and time again.

Spread the word. Spread the word that projects such as the eradication of polio are not difficult — in fact, in many ways they are remarkably easy, given the right vision, planning, and people. Find another million Rotarians, or another ten million. Teach the attitude that change is possible and that people working together toward a common goal can change the world in remarkable ways.

Many hands make light work, and we have much left to do.

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