Rotary Club of Seattle

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 2/19/2021
  • Essay 21187
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Founded in 1909, Rotary Club of Seattle -- the fourth oldest Rotary club in the nation -- provided a place where networking and fellowship could thrive. Its all-male members soon added a third component: community service. Three of its founders played pivotal roles in the organization locally and nationally: Robert Roy Denny became Rotary Seattle's first president and later served as the first vice-president of Rotary International, Jim Pinkham coined the club's well-known motto, "Service Above Self," and Ernst Skeel helped draft its constitution. Through two world wars and the Great Depression, Rotarians supported the troops, raised funds for local youth, and volunteered in their communities. In 1940, Rotary #4 established a foundation that has contributed millions to education, housing, healthcare, and other causes. A men's-only organization for some 80 years, women were permitted to join in 1987 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling cleared the way. At its centennial in 2009, Seattle Rotary had about 700 members.

Rotary Begins in Chicago

When it was founded in 1905 in Chicago, the Rotary Club was designed to bring together businessmen in a casual setting where they could socialize and network among peers. The first Rotary was started by 37-year-old attorney Paul Harris (1868-1947). Harris, who grew up in Wallingford, Vermont, missed the congeniality and closeness of a small-town setting. "I was sure that there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago ... Why not bring them together? If others were longing for fellowship as I was, something would come of it" (Paul Harris: Rotary's Founder).

On February 23, 1905, Harris, Silvester Schiele (1870-1945), Gustavus Loehr (1864-1918), and Hiram Shorey (1862-1944) -- all professional men in their 30s or early 40s -- met for lunch at Loehr's office. As the weeks wore on, the men changed meeting locations, rotating among their places of business. Before long, the men started called themselves the Rotary Club. The first logo was a wagon wheel, which evolved into the more well-known cogwheel seen on Rotarian lapels around the world. In order to avoid an organization overrun by lawyers or bankers, the founders decided to admit only one man from each profession. With an interest in promoting ethical business practices, alcohol was banned at the meetings, as was the telling of off-color stories.

By the end of 1905, the Chicago club had 30 members. They included a coal dealer, a mining engineer, a printer, and a piano manufacturer. A second Rotary club opened in San Francisco in 1908, followed by Rotary #3 in Oakland. Rotarian Art Holman, an insurance manager from San Francisco, traveled to Seattle to meet with insurance colleague Robert Roy Denny (1876-1954). While there, Holman was so impressed by Seattle's boom-town atmosphere that he encouraged Denny to establish Rotary #4.

Rotary Club #4

On June 15, 1909, a handful of men, including Roy Denny, attended the first Seattle Rotary Club meeting at the Stokes Ice Cream Parlor at 2nd Avenue and Madison Street, although some reports say the initial meeting was held at the Olympus Café in Pioneer Square.

By Thanksgiving 1909, the club was getting its fair share of attention. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had a field day with the name, announcing that "despite its giddy name, [it] is a very serious minded institution. It is devoted to civic uplift, exchange of business patronage, consumption of square meals and promulgation of square deals ... Membership is limited to one person from each profession or life of business in the city. Each sphere is represented by but one member in order that the entire membership may rotate comfortably and harmoniously in its orbit, for while one real estate man can quarrel with another, what real estate man knows enough of a varnish man's business to quarrel with him or join in an attack on a confectioner?" ("In Rotation Lies Our Usefulness").

The tongue-in-check description notwithstanding, Seattle Rotary was a serious organization, determined to play a prominent role in the commercial life of the city. Within a year, its membership had grown to about 100. Tacoma soon followed, establishing Rotary Club #8 in 1910, followed by Spokane (Rotary Club #21) in 1911.

Service Above Self

Three men emerged as leaders of the nascent Seattle Rotary: Robert Roy Denny, Jim Pinkham, and Ernst Skeel (1881-1952). Denny, who became the club's first president, was an insurance agent, Pinkham was a lumber broker, and Skeel was a lawyer.

Pinkham, born in Iowa in 1882, was Rotary Seattle's third president in 1911. He is credited with coining the organization's motto, "Service Above Self," at the annual Rotary convention in Portland, Oregon. Pinkham chaired the resolutions committee, charged with establishing a Seattle platform focused on community service and ethical business standards. As the previous year's highlights were read into the record, the report concluded with the phrase: "He profits most who serves best." As if struck by lightning, Pinkham leapt to his feet and shouted: Here is what we've been looking for! A positive affirmation in six words! The delegates greeted his outburst with a standing ovation. Eventually, the phrase was shortened to Service Above Self. "Adoption of the service philosophy has been described as a turning point in Rotary's history. Variations on the service theme have been adopted by other national and international businessmen's groups formed later, including Kiwanis (begun in 1915) and Lions (1917)" (Haigh). Pinkham died from polio in his 30s.

Ernst Skeel, born in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 12, 1881, was known for his tireless efforts to promote civic and economic development. As a founding member of the Seattle Rotary Club, where he served as president in 1913, Skeel helped draft the parent organization's constitution during the first national meeting held in Chicago in 1910. Skeel was president of the Pacific Northwest Trade Association, headed the Municipal League of Seattle (1931), led the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and presided over the Commercial Club (1946). A Rotary booster, he helped organize 21 more Rotary clubs around Washington, Alaska, and Idaho. He died on April 14, 1952, at the age of 70.

Pinkham and Skeel developed the business ambassador system on which the organization flourished. As Roy Denny explained 40 years later: "Each classification of business, profession or vocation could have an ambassador. The blacksmith -- we used horses in those days -- was put on the same level as the banker for the first time in business. The classification idea helped many types of businessmen to overcome their inhibitions. In those days college graduates were rare, and the 'sheepskin men' were the talkers. The rest of us were scared to death in their presence. Rotary helped to change that" ("Rotary Celebrates ...").

Seattle Rotary's first president, Robert Roy Denny, known as Roy, was born in California on August 9, 1876. He married poet and author Melcena Burns (1876-1974) and the couple had one daughter, Roberta, born around 1911. Portrayed as an articulate, jovial man, and a charming conversationalist, Denny characterized the Rotary's influence in this way: "We did what the preachers wanted us to do. We took the Golden Rule off the shelf and put it in business" ("Rotary Celebrates ..."). Denny was elected the first vice president of Rotary International and made significant contributions to the shaping of Rotary's organizational philosophy.

In 1912, Denny and his family left Seattle for San Diego. Although he never lived in Seattle again, he and his wife returned on several occasions related to Rotary. In 1949, they attended the Seattle Rotary's 40th anniversary banquet at the Olympic Hotel, which attracted 625 attendees. In 1954, he and Melcena were in Seattle again to attend a site inspection for the new Rotary Boys' Club. Denny died a month later on July 7, 1954. Buried in Los Angeles County, his tombstone reads: Friend and Brother of Mankind.

War and the Great Depression

By 1913, Rotary Club of Seattle was firmly established as an important player on the civic landscape. Its members were eager to get behind "any good cause for the betterment or development of Seattle, to aid in its accomplishment ... For the past year the work of the club has been that of education and exploitation, by the former keeping its members informed of matters affecting Seattle. The club supports the Potlatch, disseminates information regarding the port of Seattle, assists in the program for good roads, is working for adequate representation at the Panama-Pacific exposition, and keeps its members in touch with the movement to open Alaska to development and colonization" ("Clubs Guard Best Interests ..."). 

Club members were always ready to speak up on matters of local commerce. The club voted to support preserving the grounds of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which had closed on October 16, 1909. In 1919, members joined other groups including the Elks and the Kiwanis to call for an airmail service between Seattle and Alaska to further "commercial, social and fraternal associations within the boundaries of the state and territory" ("100,000 Will Ask ...").

During World War I, the 300 members of Rotary #4 were actively involved in selling Liberty Bonds, entertaining the local troops, and sending money overseas to help children displaced by the conflict. Post-war, the organization created job-training classes to assist returning veterans. In the 1920s, again responding to community needs, Rotarians purchased property on Mercer Island for a Boy Scout camp to be called Camp Rotary. Club donations paid for a camp supervisor and two scout masters. Around the same time, the group donated $50,000 to support Children's Orthopedic Hospital.

Pocketbooks tightened significantly during the Great Depression. Members who were out of work could not pay their dues, and Rotary membership declined. When the Olympic Hotel, site of the Rotary weekly meetings, announced it would raise luncheon prices by one dollar, Rotary members balked. The group countered with a more modest price increase of 85 cents and the hotel agreed. The lunches continued.

War Bonds and Aluminum Drives

Just as they had during World War I, Seattle Rotarians supported the war efforts during World War II. Some made the ultimate sacrifice: Of the 22 members and 286 sons and daughters who served during the war, nine did not return. In 1942, club members provided materials to build a 43-room guest house for the wives and mothers of servicemen. Two years later, Rotarians helped support the Puget Sound Blood Center, entertained soldiers through USO activities, and recruited personnel for both the armed forces and to work in Boeing factories.  

Rotarians were equally enthusiastic about war bonds and scrap-metal drives. "Rotarians took over Victory Square on University Street for war bond sales. One year, they broke all records by topping $7 million in sales, $1 million of it in one day. They also led a drive to collect aluminum pots and pans in the Square, hoisting signs that read: 'America is worth defending' and "Turn aluminum into airplanes'" ("Celebrating a Century ...").

In 1954, Seattle hosted the annual Rotary International meeting, welcoming about 3,000 members from around the world. More than 250 Seattle Rotarians volunteered to host some of the out-of-towners in their own homes. The keynote speaker was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888-1959).

On its 50th anniversary in 1959, Rotary Seattle had 535 members. An anniversary celebration was held in the grand ballroom of the Olympic Hotel with keynote remarks by Clifford A. Randall, Rotary International's president. In his speech, Randall promoted greater understanding and rapport between Rotarians and citizens from other nations. "In this connection, he counselled understanding of the nations of Asia, particularly those newly free ... Randall said it is his belief that these new nations, not yet ready for democracy as Americans know it, nevertheless are attaining it in their own way – and that Rotary can help them attain it through friendship and understanding" ("Fiftieth Birthday ... ").   

Fundraising Takes Off

Overwhelmed by continuous appeals for grants, Seattle Rotary standardized its fundraising process in 1940 by creating the Rotary Youth Foundation (the name was changed to the Seattle Rotary Service Foundation in 1968). One of its first campaigns was to fund the George Colman Boys Club, housed in the basement of the historic Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Seattle. When the club outgrew the church space in the 1950s, members raised $160,000 to build a new facility at 19th Avenue and East Spruce Street.

In the 1970s, each Rotarian was asked to contribute $150 annually to the foundation in addition to the club's annual dues. (In 2020, the minimum donation to the foundation was $400; club membership dues were $720.) In 1978, the Seattle Rotary Service Foundation made grants totaling $84,000. Of this amount, $25,000 went to support a job center; $10,000 was earmarked for the Rotary's 3-H program that focused on health, hunger, and humanities; and more than a dozen smaller grants were made to such organization as Junior Achievement, Boy Scouts, Easter Seal Camp, and Seattle Youth Symphony.

Over the decades, the foundation awards expanded significantly. Some of the more ambitious projects supported by Rotary #4 were:

  • KCTS-TV new headquarters, 1983 ($1 million; additional $1 million in corporate matching funds).
  • Woodland Park Zoo's Seattle Rotary Education Center, 1994 ($500,000).
  • Education center at the YMCA of Great Seattle, 2000 ($250,000).
  • Rotary Support Center for Families to prevent and end homelessness, 2009, in partnership with Wellspring Family Services ($4.3 million).
  • Puget Sound Blood Center, 2011-2012 ($100,000).
  • Earl Thomas House Medical Respite, 2013 ($100,000).

In 2019, the Foundation raised more than $225,000 with the average member donating $781. When the pandemic hit in 2020, the Foundation dedicated $100,000 to fund emergency relief for families. Two additional $5,000 grants went to purchase masks for first-responders and healthcare workers, and a $5,000 grant was matched by Rotary members to support local food banks. The Foundation also supports international projects, such as scholarships, job-training programs, water-purification systems, and earthquake relief.

A Who's Who

At the time of its 75th anniversary in 1984, the 774 members of Rotary #4 were directors of "the most powerful institutions in the region -- outfits like Seafirst, Rainier and First Interstate banks, like Metro, the Port of Seattle and the U.S. Navy, like Boeing, Weyerhaeuser and Westin International, not to mention both of Seattle's daily newspapers and most of its churches" (Cowley). Its luncheon meetings were considered important stops on the lecture circuit, and its foundation was known for its substantial community impact.

Since its inception, the Rotary had excluded women from membership, along with non-executives and politicians. "Peons, politicians and women may be out, but that isn't to say male business executives are necessarily in. To become a Rotarian, you must first pass muster with the membership committee, which not only checks your general eligibility but also conducts an investigation of 'your character, business, and social standing.' The check doesn't involve snooping, just a followup on references supplied by the nominee" (Cowley).

But the times, they were changing, and some Rotarians were concerned this exclusivity could be detrimental to the club's future. "The club, unlike the city, is still made up almost entirely of older white males who view the world from plush, 40th-floor offices. Young people and minorities have managed to infiltrate its ranks in recent years, but women are still openly excluded. And as women gain influence in the community, that ban is becoming ever more awkward to enforce ... Some Rotarians feel that just as minorities need access to the network, the network needs more minorities within its ranks ... Rotary has never openly discriminated against racial minorities -- they just haven't happened to head corporations" (Cowley).

Rotary Opens to Women

As the women's equal rights movement gathered speed, Seattle Rotarians began discussing the possibility of admitting women as members, although some members were stymied as to how to start the process. As former club president Willis Camp (1913?-1993) explained to The Seattle Times in 1984: "If it were up to this club, we might change the rule tomorrow -- but it's not just up to us. All the American clubs together only make up a third of the organization, and it's wishful thinking to say we're going to change everyone else's mind overnight. Women just don't enjoy the same high esteem in Mexico and Japan and South Africa that they do here" (Cowley).

It wasn't until 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all Rotary International clubs must admit women, that the organization opened its doors to women. That year, 23 women were admitted as members of the Seattle Rotary. In 1996, Anne Farrell (b. 1936), president and CEO of the Seattle Foundation, became the first woman president of Seattle Rotary. From 2010-2020, five of the 10 presidents of the Rotary Club of Seattle were women.

In 2009, as the Rotary Club of Seattle celebrated its centennial, it remained one of the world's largest Rotary chapters. At the centennial kickoff event held March 5, 2009, more than 1,000 Rotarians and community leaders assembled to hear Bill Gates (b. 1955), Microsoft co-founder and co-chairman of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, give the keynote speech.  The event highlighted many of the club's local and regional projects, including its pledge of $200 million, to be added to The Gates Foundation's $355 million, to eradicate polio worldwide.

As of 2020, Rotary #4 was committed to representing the diversity of men and women found in leadership positions in Puget Sound, and the club articulated its commitment to social justice and inclusion. During the coronavirus pandemic, the weekly Rotary meetings continued online, with speakers representing the area's movers and shakers, including Brad Smith, president of Microsoft; Mary Kipp, Puget Sound Energy CEO; and Tod Leiweke, CEO of the Seattle Kraken, the city's new professional ice hockey franchise.


John Haigh, "Seattle Rotary: City's 'Most Important Weekly Gathering," The Seattle Times Magazine, February 3, 1980 (cover story); "Improvement Clubs Favor Park," The Seattle Times, October 14, 1909, p. 5; "Rotary Club Seeks to Advance Seattle," Ibid., December 5, 1909, p. 10; "100,000 Will Ask Alaskan Air Mail," Ibid., December 22, 1919, p. 4; "Rotary Celebrates 40th Birthday with Banquet," Ibid., June 16, 1949; "Hospitality and Service Mark Rotary Activities," Ibid., June 10, 1954; Geoffrey Cowley, "Rotary at 75: Big Wheels Keep on Turning," The Seattle Times Pacific Magazine, May 13, 1984; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Skeel, Ernst Laughlin (1881-1952)" (Frank Chesley) (accessed January 28, 2021); "In Rotation Lies Our Usefulness Motto of the Rotary Club," The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1909, p. 6; "Clubs Guard Best Interests of Seattle," Ibid., April 20, 1913, p. 4; "Fiftieth Birthday Anniversary Celebrated by Rotary Club," Ibid., February 4, 1959, p. 8; "Why Seattle 4 Rotary?", Seattle Rotary Club website accessed February 1, 2021 (; "Celebrating a Century of Rotary in the Pacific Northwest," Rotary Club of Seattle anniversary brochure accessed February 3, 2021 (; "Paul Harris: Rotary's Founder," Rotary International website accessed January 25, 2021 (

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