Rotary, Main Street, and the Soul of American Business
About a week ago, my daughter let us know that she had to be in town on Friday for something to do with her ROP retail and hospitality class. It turned out that she was getting an award from our local Rotary Club for being one of the outstanding students in a work-related class. This was a very cool thing since my kids have been very sports oriented where they’ve been lucky enough to do quite well. In any case, our daughter would just as soon not talk about regular school so it was nice to hear that she was doing more than okay. Bottom line, I got to go to a Rotary Club luncheon with her where she got her award, a check, and got to make a brief speech.
I’m not at all the sort of adult who would ever join the Rotary Club. I don’t own a business for one thing and I’m not very social. It’s not my idea of a good time to go to a lunch every month or so with fifty other people and engage in bonhomie over chicken and mashed potatoes. That doesn’t mean that I’ve never attended a Rotary Club meeting. When I was about twelve, my friend Bill’s dad took as to Rotary for their father-son’s day lunch. Mostly, I remember everyone getting fined for silly stuff and listening to a speech by a 49er linebacker of the time named Skip Vanderbundt. While it was “nice” to have gone once, I didn’t imagine that I’d ever come back, though I did later have friends who applied for Rotary club international study scholarships. Basically, Rotary was the epitome of Babbitry in which camaraderie mixed with business development in curiously suspicious fashion. To stick with the Sinclair Lewis bit, it was like being trapped inside one of the chapters in his novel, Main Street. Critics still sometimes debate whether Main Street was meant to be warmly descriptive or purely satirical. When I was a kid, I leaned to the latter. Yes, I know, I was a weird kid.
There’s a lot of talk in the political world about the difference between Main Street and Wall Street. Rotary is the embodiment of Main Street America. The walls there were covered with pennants from visiting Rotarians from all over the world. A half dozen men at the luncheon wore crab claw hats circulated to help promote a coming crab feed dinner to raise money for needy families at Christmas (I think that was it). The lunch consisted of turkey legs, string beans cooked with bacon, stuffing made with sausage, apple cobbler, and homemade lemonade. The meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer that was diplomatically labeled an “invocation”, and a not very successful attempt by a woman to sing a descant over 60 Rotarians humming Silent Night.
The heart of the Rotary meeting though is the fines. The master of ceremonies spends a good half of the luncheon calling various members forward to talk about their birthdays, vacations, etc. You get fined five bucks for having a birthday and fifteen bucks for taking a vacation. The money goes into a cigar box parked at a table near the front of the meeting. Ultimately, it’s given to some sort of project devoted to the community good. Members are expected to take their “punishment” like good sports and to embellish their vacation and birthday stories with corny jokes about themselves and fellow members. In the meantime, they pretend that the fines are painful and kid around by proposing loopholes that’ll get them out of having to pay. This chapter gives the practice a high tech touch by calling on members to e-mail photos from their vacation which are put up on the screen for all to see via LCD projector. They also have wireless mikes for whenever someone has to speak.
While Rotary was once white, male, and solidly middle class or rich people acting middle class, there are a significant number of women, most of them younger business owners in the town. There was also an elegant-looking black man with shaved head who runs a local brew pub. When he got fined, he spoke with a precise east coast aristocratic accent about his “vacation” then threatened to “kill all you white people” (I’m just kidding).
Rotary here is white male culture, but it’s found a way to welcome both women and non-whites willing to participate. Rotary is admirably inclusive as long as you’re willing to wear funny hats and shoot the breeze with an unending line of older white-haired men who run local businesses, have pictures of their grandchildren, and talk about their vacations. Yes, it's a culture that tends to avoid controversy and partisan politics, but it also appears to be about building around what people in a community have in common. I'm not sure it's the best place to talk about worker's rights, reproductive choice, global warming, etc., but there are other places and venues to pursue those topics. It also doesn't seem impossible that some Rotary somehwere might take up something like local energy sustainability, universal health care, etc.
Now that I’m older and having survived both Reagan and Bush the More Terrible, I see the virtues of Rotary much more clearly. As much as Reagan and Bush supposedly appeal to Main Street America, it’s also clear to me that the truth is that they spent their political lives catering to Wall Street America. The big difference is that Main Street America as embodied in Rotary still believes in the importance of community and connection. Main Street is the place where the ultimate form of accountability takes the shape of having to appreciate the fact that your acts as a business person affect people you have lunch with, who hear about your birthday, who you vacation with, whose kids you hire for their first jobs, and who you’ll have to look in the eye on a regular basis. Franchise/mall America just doesn’t seem to work that way.
One of the more interesting moments for me was seeing the local school superintendent good naturedly get volunteered to lead the group in humming Silent Night. For some reason, it made me see that there was once an America where friendship, business, and community were intertwined and that the mix has its virtues.
Somewhere towards the end, the six kids present were given their awards by the Rotary. There was a boy who wanted to go to culinary school, another boy who showed his video built around a song by “Yes”, geez talk about feeling old, through the LCD projector, and a stylishly-dressed girl who happened to have won the prize for a woodshop class. Eventually, it was my daughter’s turn. She got up, listened to a very nice introduction by her counselor for a kid who sounded way more mature than the one who lives in our house, and then she took me by surprise. While the other kids had said a couple quick words of thanks, my daughter had prepared a short-gracious speech. She projected well into a room filled with older men in crab costumes and actually talked about how after college, she wants to give back to her own community just like it had given to her that day. This sort of thing is way more gratifying when you’re totally shocked. My kid is actually a very effective public speaker and she’d never done anything of the sort before.
Okay, I’m bragging and I need to stop. Oddly, I spent six years of my life promoting the need to use work-based learning as the path to higher education and personal growth. Somehow, it was the Rotary Club and my own daughter who somehow made me realize that I didn’t waste my time. There’s something quintessentially American about the Rotary Club culture. I might not be a member, but I hope it hangs around. America needs Main Street in ways that have nothing to do with money and business.
For one, it's rooted in the radical notion that prosperity is something that has to be shared in order for it to really happen. In the meantime, I'll just avoid it on my birthday or after vacations.
Labels: Rotary Club ROP Sinclair Lewis