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How Rotary Won Over Outspoken Critics By David C. Forward
Excerpt from A Century of Service: The Story of Rotary International © 2003 Rotary International. To order the official commemorative book of the Rotary Centennial, go to the online Shop.
As the Rotary movement spread across America and Britain, it became a favorite target for cynical writers and social critics. One newspaper editorial opined: "The Rotary club is composed of business men. The functions of a Rotary club are summed up in one word — talk. That is about all the members of the club do. The Rotary club never takes any action. Its members simply talk, or listen while others talk."
"Where is Rotary going? It is going to lunch," sneered playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Rotary's most outspoken critics in the 1920s and 1930s included Shaw, Sinclair Lewis, Clarence Darrow, H. L. Mencken, and G. K. Chesterton. Mencken, the acerbic editor of the American Mercury, wrote of his contempt for Rotary's "commercial civilization." He also derided Rotarians for their habit of greeting one another by their first names or nicknames: "The first Rotarian was the first man to call John the Baptist, 'Jack,'" he scoffed.
Sinclair Lewis touched on the same point in his 1920 novel Main Street but it was his 1922 novel, Babbitt, that caused howls of protest from Rotarians. In it, the title character was a bumbling middle-class small-town businessman who was a follower, whose weekly highlight was the backslapping singing camaraderie of like-minded men at his booster club.
Taking their lead from such famous authors, other writers joined in the parody parade with potshots of their own. They were rarely scathing attacks, but Babbitt, especially, was such a best seller that the criticism endured for decades. By then, the word Babbitt had even entered the official national vernacular. Dictionaries started including it, with the definition in Webster's New Collegiate: "A business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle class standards."
When in 1934 another dictionary leaked that it was considering equating its own definition of Babbitt with Rotarian, Editor Leland D. Case of The Rotarian had had enough. One steamy August morning he took matters into his own hands and paid an unannounced visit to Sinclair Lewis' summer home in Vermont.
"Who the hell're you, and what do you want?" growled the sleepy cynic as he opened the door in his blue pajamas. Case explained that he edited Rotary's magazine in Chicago and had come to find out what Lewis disliked about Rotarians.
"Sit down," Lewis commanded. "First, we'll have breakfast. Then we'll talk."
When they got to the discussion, Lewis stated his first objection: "I don't like their singing!"
"Neither do I," Case concurred. "What else?"
"Calling strangers by their first names," Lewis continued. "I visited a Rotary club near here and right away they were calling me 'Sinclair,' something I hadn't heard since I last saw my mother." Case knew that Lewis hailed from the tiny town of Sauk Center, Minnesota. He told him the story of Rotary's founder, Paul Harris, another young man from a small village who felt lonely in the big city and how using the nicknames and first names of his new friends enhanced their camaraderie.
The amicable meeting lasted all morning. When Case arrived back at his Chicago office, he found a telegram from Lewis saying that their chat had "made me approve of Rotary."
Case later persuaded Lewis, Darrow, Mencken, and Shaw to write for The Rotarian, and nobody ever heard a sarcastic remark about Rotary from them again.