THE HISTORY OF THE ROTARY LARGE CLUB CONFERENCE
Each July 1st a new Rotary year begins and a new president takes over the leadership role of his/her club. Just as the club needs the best person for that responsibility, that person needs the benefit of receiving the best information and training possible before filling such an important pair of shoes.
It was not until 1959 when the first conference of large Rotary Clubs was organized that an incoming president had an opportunity to share information and experiences with other large Rotary Clubs in a formal meeting. This first conference was for eastern clubs and was organized by Paul Armstrong, Executive Director of the Rotary Club of Cleveland and Jim Morgan, Executive Director for the Rotary Club of Rochester. Five clubs attended that first conference in Cleveland: Rochester, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Cleveland. From that meeting, the need for the exchange of information concerning the organization and the administration of large clubs became apparent.
The second conference was held the following year in Cincinnati, attended by representatives of Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Rochester, St. Louis and Houston. Dick Proctor, Executive Director of The Rotary Club of Houston, recalls “The representatives sat around a large hotel suite and chatted about Rotary for hours without a formal agenda. They sat on the floor, ties undone and sleeves rolled up, discussing all the administration and organizational concerns of the various large clubs represented. The discussion lasted into the wee hours of the night. All were eager to gain knowledge and exchange ideas and information.”
In 1961 the conference was held in Rochester. Adding representatives from Columbus, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Toledo and Toronto to the previous year’s group resulted in twelve clubs represented. The only “Western Club” in attendance was Houston. Houston’s Dick Proctor would be instrumental in starting a “Western” meeting the next year.
At the annual meeting of the Club Executive Directors held during the Rotary International Convention in 1961, Dick Proctor was elected Chairman of the Executive Conference. Feeling strongly about the concept of the Large Club Conference being held yearly in the Eastern Division, he organized a Western Division Conference.The Rotary Club of Denver hosted the first Western Conference, led by Dan Paxton, Executive Director, in 1961. Clubs represented at that first conference included Dallas, Denver, Fort Worth, Houston, Portland, San Antonio and Seattle. Paul Armstrong, Rotary Club of Cleveland, attended as an advisor. Paul would remain the coordinator and secretary of both Eastern and Western Conferences until his retirement in 1977. Dick Proctor asked Ed Pitcher, Rotary Club of Oakland, to host the 1963 conference. Oakland rose to the call to service with great success. That year the Western Conference added attendees from Kansas City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Strategy on location became very important. The 1964 meeting was held in the Kansas City, the “eastern” area of the Western Division. In 1965 Houston was chosen from the southern area. New attendees included Oklahoma City, Wichita, and three Eastern Clubs, Cleveland, Indianapolis and St. Louis. After the 1965 meeting Clubs committed to attend on a regular basis and began including the conference in their budgets.
The beginning meetings were for clubs of 400 or more members despite clamor by others wanting to attend. Everyone was so pleased with what they gained from these meetings they began discussing whether these meetings should occur prior to the organization of their administration. These discussions became a reality in 1962 when the meetings were scheduled for the spring.
Primarily due to geographical travel issues, the Eastern and the Western Large Rotary Clubs have each held their own separate conferences. In 2008, the Rotary Club of Sacramento hosted a combined East/West Large Club Conference, initiating a trend that continued in 2009 in Oklahoma City when the East/West Large Club Conferences met jointly and in Birmingham in 2010 the two conferences met jointly again. The decision to continue to meet jointly was made in Birmingham and we continue to meet annually as one group.
Many factors have contributed to the success of these Large Club Conferences since that first one in 1959. Paul Armstrong was certainly the beginning factor. Since that time, the Club Executive Directors have served as vehicles to their boards, acting with their approval, to contribute to the conference. They maintain continuity within the conference year after year. This is a once-a-year opportunity for Club Executive Directors to meet with peers for the purpose of motivation and exchange of ideas. Additionally, the Presidents-Elects have an opportunity to exchange their ideas, plans and goals for their year as President.
Regardless of whether the Large Club Conference continues as a joint conference of the Eastern and Western Large Rotary Clubs, or moves back to separate conferences, it is not difficult to analyze the success of these conferences. In fact, there are hundreds of large Rotary Club Presidents and Past Presidents who will attest to their value. There was a need when Paul Armstrong called the first meeting, there is a need today, and there will continue to be a need tomorrow.