“Why I Am a Rotarian”

by Jim Laney


his is a most impressive gathering here today.  It is with pride we brought our spouses to experience a regular Rotary meeting.

I have been asked to say a few words about “Why I am a Rotarian”.  Many of you could address this better. 
Simply put, I became a Rotarians because someone I admired and respected greatly asked me to.  I was busy, having just assumed the presidency of Emory, but this person was someone whose advice I never refused, Pollard Turman, a late and great member of Rotary.  Pollard embodied the very principles of Rotary, service above self and servant leadership, while fulfilling every responsibility with grace and wisdom.
I thought, “If folks in Rotary are like Pollard, I want to belong.”  I want to be like them, be with them.  That was 33 years ago.  The members were and are “The magic of Rotary.”  They are committed to all Rotary stands for.
Just think, every Monday, several hundred leaders from across Atlanta come together for 90 minutes.  They see others like themselves, busy with heavy responsibilities, involved in all kinds of activities---business, commerce, industry, government, medicine, law, clergy, education, arts—a full spectrum of Atlanta’s activities.  With all of their memberships on boards and task forces, they come leaving their official duties and turn off their cell phones and blackberries.  We see each other as human beings, joined in fellowship; we present our less official selves.  Many come early to mingle, chat and touch base providing a happy buzz in the lobby.  They are glad to see one another—to meet there a generosity of spirit and leave behind the usual guardedness.  We are here to open up, learn and be informed, even inspired.  We come because we care, because we want to be good citizens.
But there is more than fellowship, friendship and camaraderie.  Rotary is also a principal Atlanta forum.  Programs are remarkable for their range, timeliness, even news worthiness.  I remember in 1985 when “the New Coke” was launched and Don Keough spoke to this club. Atlanta, with its ties to Coke, was nervous.  Some people were angry, “you took away my coke.”  I did a taste test with my mother.  She chose the New Coke and when I told her she said, indignantly,  “You tricked me.”  Even after the Company brought back the old Coke, now dubbed "Coke Classic",  people were still upset.  Some claimed the New Coke was a strategy to rejuvenate the brand.   Don with his humorous and modest decorum stated, “We’re not that smart” and "we are not that dumb".  Those words were all over the media that day. A new chapter in the love affair with Coke began at that moment.
Through the years, we have had great programs of all kinds.  We have annual visits by the Georgia governor, the Atlanta mayor and the head of the Federal Reserve Bank.  We have heard from the heads of state such as Ireland's Mary McAleese as well as community leaders such as Arthur Blank, Bernie Marcus, Michelle Nunn and Barbara Bush.  Not surprisingly, some of our great speakers are members of this club.  Comer Yates gave a moving and powerful portrait of the plight of so many little children, children living in poverty who are at risk by the time they are 3 years of age.  It was a somber assessment but delivered with hope.
Such challenges are appropriate to the Atlanta Rotary Club.  We become better informed, more concerned and more involved.  However, as great as it is, Rotary is not just a luncheon club.  Through our youth exchanges, Kenya Water Project and involvement in so many great projects.  Rotary is international and as such brings us together in concerted action to tackle a host of issues and problems.
Since 1985, we have been engaged with other organizations to eradicate polio from the fact of the earth.  This is a dream close to coming true.  Some of my earliest memories are of my Aunt Ruth, my mother’s sister, clicking her braces when she tried to stand.  Aunt Ruth was ravaged by Polio at age 2.  She could only walk with steal braces and crutches her whole life.  Today, with the Polio Plus Project, 550 million children have received oral vaccine, thus sparing 5 million who would have been paralyzed by polio. 
Polio has been  totally eradicated from all but four countries today—Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.  The final push is on with Bill Gates having pledged $350 million.   Rotary is committed to making our tired, fractious world a safer, better and healthier place to live.  We are at work right here in Atlanta and around the world to achieve that.
Thirty-three years ago Pollard Turman told me that Rotary was a great organization and that becoming a part of it would be one of the most important things I would do.  “Pollard, you were right.”