ROTARY CLUB OF ATLANTA: THE BEGINNING
On a train ride home from an advertising convention in Baltimore in the summer of 1913, four young businessmen made plans for an Atlanta Rotary Club. Ivan Allen, Howard Geldert, Evelyn Harris and Henry Grady, all close friends, traveled together to the convention where they learned about a growing association of civic clubs.
Recognizing a need for such an organization in Atlanta, the group quickly started planning. On June 18, 1913, Mr. Allen wrote a letter to Chesley Perry, Secretary of the International Association of Rotary Clubs in Chicago. The letter asked for permission to start a Rotary Club in Atlanta. Mr. Perry’s positive reply came a week later with instructions on how to establish a chapter. He offered Mr. Allen encouragement and appointed him chairman of the organizing committee.
In late June, the four Rotary initiators met with a group of nine other friends to compose a list of member prospects. Their goal was to create an opportunity for businesses to band together in self-promotion and business development. What they started was a legacy of business advancement, community activism and Atlanta promotion.
Following instructions sent from the National Rotary Club, the group sent letters to 40 men, each in a different industry or profession. Only one invitee declined to attend the first meeting of the Rotary Club of Atlanta planned for four days after the organizing committee mailed invitations. Ultimately, 38 of the original 40 businessmen invited joined the Club.
The new group’s first order of business was to elect its leadership. The new Club elected Ivan Allen, owner of the office equipment and supply firm that still bears his name, Chairman of the Board. They selected Hubert Anderson of Maier & Berkele Jewelers as President. In the beginning, the businessmen who met at the twice-monthly meetings were not the CEOs of Atlanta companies. These young ambitious and energetic businessmen, however, later became leading CEO's and played important roles in shaping Atlanta into a leading business and civic center.
In the early years, the primary purpose of the Atlanta Club was the promotion of its members’ business interests, as declared by founding member Early Cone, a druggist and storeowner. During the first few months, Atlanta members circulated a flurry of letters among themselves encouraging each other to purchase life insurance from Robert Foreman, to shop at Davison-Paxon’s, to buy more articles from Earl Cone’s drug store and to put in more telephones.
That ideology was about to change at the Rotary International Convention. Mr. Allen, 36, and Albert “Bert” Adams, 34, were appointed as delegates to the Rotary International Convention in Buffalo, New York, in August 1913. Mr. Adams, who had been in charge of the Atlanta group’s membership committee, and Mr. Allen immensely enjoyed the convention where a momentous change occurred. After much debate, the National Rotary Club chose to redirect its mission from building up one’s own business to that of helping the community. That is when Rotarians worldwide adopted the motto that lives today: “Service Above Self.”
Mr. Allen and Mr. Adams returned to Atlanta excited by the new altruistic organization model. They devised a plan to sell “Service Above Self” to the Club. The Atlanta Rotary adopted the new credo with the energy and enthusiasm that has reverberated throughout the group ever since.
Less than a month after their return from Buffalo, Mr. Allen and Mr. Adams saw an opportunity to put “Service Above Self” into action. The Associated Charities of Atlanta, the predecessor of the United Way, needed financial help. Both men served on the association’s board and were dedicated to reviving it financially. Atlanta Rotary set a two-week fundraising goal of $3,200. Although short of their goal, the $2,557 they raised paid the back phone bill and rent for the Associated Charities of Atlanta and endowed it with some funds for the future.
The Rotary Club of Atlanta set out shortly after this first fundraising success to put on a Big Brother Thanksgiving Dinner for approximately 200 boys and began its annual holiday gift collection and distribution to needy children in the Atlanta area.
Early on, the Rotary Club extended membership to men only. Wives of the all-male membership got involved through the Rotary Anns. Before the first year was over, these women joined with their husbands to raise money to purchase clothing for children at the Battle Hill Sanitarium.
By then, the Club had attracted 100 members and established a tradition of civic involvement. Club members elected Bert Adams as its second president and asked Mr. Allen to continue as chairman. Mr. Adams’s plan for the Club was “the furtherance in every way possible of the Rotary principle of acquaintanceship, and carrying out the idea that acquaintanceship begets friendship. Just making the smile of one Rotarian to another a little kinder; the handclasp a little stronger; the slap on the back a little harder; and the ‘Hello Bill’ and ‘Hello Jack’ a little friendlier than they have been.”
He began his run as president by giving Rotary members cards with words of a popular song printed on them. The “Smile, Damn You, Smile” cards went far to foster fellowship and friendship among the group. In a short time, the group had grown together in business and grown close as friends. The future leaders and future namesakes of an airport, hospital and roads, enjoyed each other enough to cut loose and have fun. At a fish fry and watermelon cutting party hosted by Preston Arkwright at Bull Sluice Park, Henry McCord, a wholesale grocer, started a watermelon fight by launching the first piece at Victor Kreigshaber. The men, who were wearing ties and straw hats, divided into two teams and fought the greatest of all watermelon fights, later to be named the Battle of Bull Sluice.
At another outdoor event at the Southeastern Fair, the Rotary Club of Atlanta held a barbeque. It was the onset of prohibition and the business and civic leaders were photographed ceremoniously burying a beer keg. All in attendance had smiles on their faces and a full glass at hand. One can assume the buried keg was empty.
During that second year, Mr. Adams and Mr. Allen set a goal of hosting a Rotary International Convention in Atlanta. Fred Houser and Lou Hicks attended the Rotary International Convention hosted by Houston in 1914 along with Mr. Adams and Mr. Allen to launch Atlanta’s campaign for the convention.
The Atlanta Club wasn’t even a year old when Rotary International chose Mr. Adams as the chairman of its real estate section, Mr. Allen as the chairman of the office outfitters division and Mr. Hicks as the chairman of the international publishers division. The Atlantans succeeded in making a mark in Houston as reported by a surprising mention in an issue of the Christian Science Monitor soon after the convention. “A movement is underway, strongly supported by the Atlanta Convention Bureau, to secure the 1916 meeting for this city,” stated the magazine.
Atlanta sent the same four delegates to the 1915 convention in San Francisco. Mr. Adams was elected International Sergeant at Arms. Just less than two years old, the Atlanta Club had taken on significant leadership in Rotary International. Desire for the international convention in 1917 increased. When Mr. Adams’ term as president was over, the Club had 135 members and he became the chairman of the Get the Convention Committee.
The first order of business for the Get the Convention Committee was to ask all members for a $10 contribution for the effort. Atlanta had some stiff competition. Kansas City and Salt Lake City were also campaigning for the 1917 convention. Both Clubs were older and larger than the Atlanta group. Size, however, didn’t phase Atlanta. Determined to secure the convention, the Atlanta Rotary Club sent 34 members and six Rotary Anns to the Cincinnati convention in 1916. They took up an entire floor in the Sinton Hotel across the street from the convention hall. Each morning, the Atlanta Club treated all delegates and visitors to fresh carnations that had tiny streamers attached reading “Atlanta in 1917.” The Atlanta Rotary Club gained more attention when its Secretary Kendal Weisiger won the award for best secretarial work of all the chapters.
The Atlanta group knew how to make a statement. It shipped a truckload of Georgia watermelons to Cincinnati, iced them down, and served them to all the delegates at the convention’s outdoor barbeque finale. At the end of dinner, a fireworks display erupted behind the watermelon tables proclaiming “Atlanta wants you in 1917.” Mr. Adams gave members of the international selection committee engraved invitations to the convention. When the group was finished meeting over which city to give the convention to, they awarded the 1917 convention to Atlanta.
Two years after a successful convention, Mr. Adams was elected President of Rotary International. The Atlanta chapter, proud of the charter member, was honored by an official visit Mr. Adams made to the Club on May 18, 1920, while president of Rotary International. Mr. Adams’ leadership and insight were invaluable to the Rotary Club until his untimely death in 1927. He was 48 years old. As a memorial to his leadership, his friends in the Club raised enough money to purchase a tract of land in Vinings to start Atlanta’s first Boy Scout retreat, Camp Bert Adams. Another longtime Rotary member, Ivan Allen, stayed active in the Club until he died at age 92 in 1968.
GROWTH AND PROGRESS: 1920 TO 1970
In addition, many men joined the Club to be a part of the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s outstanding community programs. Kendall Weisiger, a member for 47 years, started the Rotary Education Foundation in 1923, which provided loans to deserving young college students. Mr. Weisiger also began providing scholarships to foreign students prior to World War II with the intent of promoting international peace and good will. As the Club and its programs matured, the scholarship programs were combined in 1949 to create today’s Georgia Rotary Student Program.
The Rotary Education Foundation in Atlanta provided initial support for the Endowment Fund of the Georgia Rotary Student Program with a pledge of $10,000 a year for 15 years. In honor of the Atlanta chapter’s program founder, the student selected by the Atlanta Club each year was named the Kendall Weisiger Student.
Many opportunities to assist students and educational institutions arose in the 1920s. When the Georgia Legislature failed to appropriate funds for maintenance at Georgia Tech, the Rotary Club of Atlanta offered a hand. Together, Will Glenn and Bert Adams raised $125,000 to be loaned to Georgia Tech for campus maintenance. The funds were later reimbursed by legislative appropriation.
The Rotary Club name implied that the group rotated meetings from one member’s business site to another. The growing membership roster made it difficult to move from meeting place to meeting place and many businesses were unable to accommodate such a group. In 1920, the Piedmont Hotel became the first independent setting for the group’s meetings. Then, in 1921, the Rotary Club of Atlanta relocated its meetings to the Capital City Club.
By the end of 1930, membership of the Atlanta Rotary Club had grown to 198 members. Many factors, including population growth in the area, contributed to the burgeoning group. By looking at the membership list it is evident the Rotary Club had become a family affair. Frank M. Spratlin served as president from 1931 to 1932. Mr. Spratlin’s grandson, Chandler Spratlin, is a former member of the Rotary Club of Atlanta. Willard McBurney Sr. was Sergeant-at-Arms in the 1930s. His son Buster and his grandsons Blake and John later joined the Club. Buster and Blake have both served as president. The presidency ran in the family of William “Bill” Ellis, who was president from 1944 to 1945. His son Doug Ellis also served as president from 1977 to 1978. John H. Stembler, Sr. joined in 1947. He also had two sons join, William J. and John H. Jr.. John Sr. served as president in 1961 to 1962 and Bill in 1991-1992. In 1950, Malon Courts took over as president. His grandson Malon W. Courts is a Rotary member today.
As times changed, the Rotary Club altered its meeting schedule and established some member recognition programs. The biweekly schedule became weekly. In 1934, the Club swapped its Tuesday meetings for Monday. Monday meetings were thought to be a great way to start the week. On Feb. 2, 1936, Ralph Paris presided over the first Old Timers Banquet as his first act as President. Just 23 years after the Club was founded, 39 members were eligible to attend the first Old Timers Banquet.
At the close of the 1930s, the Rotary Club of Atlanta had 262 members and had sponsored three new Rotary Clubs: Dalton (1937), East Point (1939) and Decatur in (1938). The Decatur Rotary took over the DeKalb portion of the Atlanta chapter’s territory. Atlanta Rotary sponsored the Buckhead and Roswell chapters in 1951 and the Brookwood (now Midtown Atlanta) and West End chapters in 1958.
As the calendar broached the mid-century mark, the Club began to further notice the greatness of its membership. While on a leave of absence to serve in the wartime press corps, Wright Bryan scooped the world press with his coverage of D-Day and the landing of American troops in Normandy. Chuck Palmer became Rotary District Governor from 1947 to 1948. Leo Aikman, the Atlanta Constitution columnist, was District Governor from 1955 to 1956. Mr. Bryan, editor of The Atlanta Journal and a noted war correspondent in World War II, was President in 1953, but resigned when he was transferred to Ohio to head up The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He was succeeded by Pollard Turman.
The 1960s were great years for Atlanta Rotary. During Herbert Norton’s presidency in 1964, the Club began planning for a second Rotary International Convention in Atlanta. Mr. Norton became General Chairman of the Host Committee and was joined on the committee by Vice Chairman Bill Glenn, Jr., John Staton, Pollard Turman, John Coppedge, Jr., Brannon Lesesne and Ed Smith. Seven past District Governors and two current District Governors, Marshall Weaver of District 690 and Randolph Holder of District 692, joined the committee. This powerhouse of a committee prevailed and secured a convention of 10,761 Rotarians representing 68 countries.
RECOGNITION AND MILESTONE: 1971 TO 2000
“You and the American Economy” began in 1976 under the leadership of Mike Mescon. High school seniors and their teachers are invited to attend this conference each year at Georgia State University.
The Club’s dedication to education has never waned. In 2001, through the Rotary Educational Foundation of Atlanta, the Club began funding a reading recovery program at the Drew Charter School in East Lake.
During Tom Edenfield’s Atlanta Rotary presidency in 1980, Rotarians worldwide celebrated the 75th anniversary of Rotary International. Longtime member Bill Ellis brought Rotary history alive with his wonderful stories and sense of humor. Just eight years later, while Bill Hatcher was president, the Rotary Club of Atlanta marked its 75th anniversary. To commemorate the milestone, Felix Robb wrote a history on Atlanta Rotary entitled Rotary in Atlanta 1913-1988. Tom Cooper printed the book. The written history enabled the Club to reflect on the impact it had made on the community and its members.
A noticeable trend through Atlanta Rotary’s history is member leadership. Tom Cooper served as District Governor from 1981 to 1982 after serving as president from 1974 to 1975 and as our historian, photographer and publisher. Bob Eskew became District Governor from 1992 to 1993 after serving as President from 1982 to 1983. He directed the Polio Plus campaign for the district, and raised $340,000 from the Atlanta Rotary alone. Jim Burnaw, President from 1997 to 1998, became District Governor in 2000. Mr. Burnaw joined Rotary in 1956 in Waco, Texas, and has been in six different Clubs during his career, including Atlanta on three separate occasions.
Perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring programs Rotary Atlanta has ever produced occurred on June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D Day. (Frank Skinner was President at the time.) Lt. Gen. Collier Ross, United States Army (retired), served as Master of Ceremonies at the event where the recorded voice of past President Wright Bryan, former editor of the Atlanta Journal, described the view from the airplane as he flew over the invasion fleet on his way to parachute into Normandy with the troops. During his tribute to those who landed in Normandy on D Day, Lt. Gen. Ross said:
“As we look back on what many consider a simpler time in history, a nation united in a noble cause for humanity, we need to remember today that to be born free is an accident; to live free is a responsibility; and to die free an obligation. Those gallant men of D Day 1944 who died on the beaches of Normandy met their obligation willingly, bravely and without remorse. Certainly they have the right to expect no less of us, should we face a similar challenge once again. God grant that we should not fail. Bugler, sound taps.”
The first annual Rotary Interfaith Prayer Breakfast was held in 1998 with featured speaker Jimmy Blanchard. More than 1,400 business and professional leaders attended. Another great crowd gathered later that year to honor former First Lady Barbara Bush. During her speech on Rotarian Daughter Day, Dec. 21, 1998, she told stories of her travels as First Lady and talked about how she had come to appreciate Rotary and the fine work it does. She reminded the audience that 90 million Americans cannot read or write well enough to succeed. “Encourage kids to read and read with them,” she said. “It builds family, and we lack family building today. Children believe what they think we want them to believe. We must be sure we are sending them the right message. They need to see us living decent, tolerant, caring, honest lives. They have to be taught right and wrong. If we put our family first in word and deed, we will find ourselves rewarded the most.”
Looking back on the 21st century, the Rotary Club of Atlanta has contributed to local, national and international community. During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and Warren Jobe’s term as President, Rotary Atlanta hosted many visiting Rotarians in its Home Stay program and welcomed Rotarians at its Friendship House.
To cap off the century, Atlanta Rotary had another first. After having served in many other capacities, Paula Bevington became the Rotary Club of Atlanta’s first female president since women started joining the Club in 1987.
Upon entering the 21st century, Rotary Atlanta only gained momentum. The Club began meeting at the new Loudermilk Conference Center in January 2000. Charlie Loudermilk made the initial gift of $1 million to build the center. Frank Skinner, Mark Pope and several other Club members also made significant contributions.
In 2001, Rotary International selected Atlanta as one of 10 large Clubs to write its own constitution and operate under it for a three-year period. Rotary International will eventually develop a new standard constitution for all Clubs worldwide. This project has been extended for another three years, through 2007.
In 2003, Rotary Atlanta took a leadership role in modernizing a maternity hospital outside of Moscow with the goal of reducing infant mortality in newborn babies by 50 percent over five years. Under the leadership of Emory’s Dr. Al Brand, Rotary Atlanta developed a partnership with the CDC, Rotary International, the Future of Russia Foundation and local Rotary Clubs in Moscow.
Atlanta Rotary reached another milestone in 2004 when Felker Ward became the group’s first African-American president. This year the Club has planned numerous projects in conjunction with Rotary International’s Centennial Celebration. Themes for the year include “Service Above Self” and “Promoting World Peace Through Understanding.” In keeping with the themes, Blaine Kelley and Horace Sibley increased the Club’s involvement in helping with a safe drinking water project in Kenya, Africa. and Gateway to address Atlanta’s homeless problem.