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From four businessmen in Chicago to 1.4 million members worldwide: this is Rotary

Leo Farrelly has been in Rotary since 1989 and has been president of the Belconnen Club as well as filling numerous other positions. He is now the ACT District Governor of Rotary.

I sat down with Leo Farrelly to discuss what the purpose of Rotary is, how he first got involved, the evolution of the organisation since he first got started 30+ years ago & how to get younger people to help serve their community.

A close up picture of Leo Farrelly
Leo Farrelly – District Governor of Rotary

Q: If someone came to you, and asked you what is rotary, what’s the purpose, what’s the objective, what would your answer be? 

A: Rotary’s a community service organisation. It’s a membership based organisation. It’s [now] world wide. [Rotary] started in the 1900’s. So we are now going about 100+ years? I think we started back in 1907, in Chicago. By a group of businessmen back in those days. They formed this society association to do community service projects around Chicago and their first community service project was to put a public toilet in the main street. And the outline of that building is still there now on the remaining buildings in Chicago. And it grew from that, [and] now it’s got the name Rotary. They termed that and had a number of sort of start-up names, but they settled on Rotary because they used to rotate around each other’s businesses to have meetings. The idea of community service based on business association was what got it going. So if you’re a businessman or if you are retired, like I am, or if you are, you know, in the government or whatever, lots and lots of people are interested in serving their community, doing something for it. [The purpose of Rotary] is this desire in people to help others without reward. [And nowadays] Rotary has got 1.3, 1.4 million members worldwide.

Q: How did you first start getting involved with Rotary back in the late 1980s?

A: [Laughs] Someone asked me. Which is the [best] way to get members. I was heavily tied up with the scout association as well. I moved to Canberra here in 1980. I was in the Navy in those days. And, I’d been in the scouting association up in Darwin where we came from my previous posting and [then when we] came here and looked up the local scout troop and said, Hey, do you want another leader? And I go, of course we do. And I got there and anyway, that was in 1980. So in 1989, I had a scout troop there and the father of one of the kids asked me. He said, oh, would you be interested in rotary? And I didn’t know a lot about rotary in those days. I had an uncle who was a country school teacher in Queensland and he had been in rotary. So I had a vague idea what it was. So, this chap asked me to come along. I said, oh yeah. So, it’s the same thing with Scouts, I was interested in helping young people develop through scouting. And Rotary’s got a strong youth focus as well. [And I wanted to help] bring younger people up into society, you know, [as] useful citizens, if you like.

Leo Farrelly talking at the closing ceremony of the Aussie Peace Walk – one of Rotary’s annual events

Q: Over the years Rotary has seemed to get less traditional than it once was, in your eyes how has Rotary evolved in your 30+ years?

A: It’s evolved. Yes, that’s a tricky question and it’s one we struggle with all the time. It has evolved. It has moved away from that rigid, you know, attendance was the way they kept people’s focus. There were attendance rules, you had to attend 80% of the meetings or whatever. And if you were away from town, you were expected to go to a club meeting somewhere else and make up the meeting. As times gone on, of course society’s changed and [now] all membership based organisations are struggling with how to keep the ideals going of what their mission is, but in the context of today’s society. And so it’s not so much that Rotary changed [It’s that] society’s changed around it and organisations like Rotary, Scouts, the RSL’s are all struggling to come to grips with today’s society. And you’ve gotta think, Hey, even in the 30 years or whatever it is, the technological world has changed enormously. It’s nothing you could have imagined back in, you know, 1980. [We couldn’t have guessed] where we would be today with technologies, so that’s been a big thing.

“Because by the time you get to 50 you’ll go, what’s the meaning of life. We all do it, and you’ll say, how can I contribute?”

-Leo Farrelly, District Governor of Rotary

Q: What can you tell me about the Rotaract clubs in Canberra and how can they help get younger people involved in Rotary?

A: Rotaract club are usually found in most universities and are for those under 30 who are interested in serving the community but want to be in a club with those with a similar interest and age and not in a room with a bunch of 80 year old’s. I think [Rotaract clubs] are great because the young people who come to university are idealistic and the idea of an organisation that exists solely to help other people strikes a chord with them. We know that that ideal resonates with Rotaract university based clubs. It’s a bit tricky because you’re here for a short time. And then you shoot off to get a job or a career or whatever. [But] it’s getting that continuity going [because] you run into a bit of a challenge transitioning into rotary because about 30 you’re getting your career established, getting married and all that sort of stuff, you know? But what we’ve got to do is make sure that while that’s happening, we, [are staying] in touch with people. Because by the time you get to 50 you’ll go, what’s the meaning of life. We all do it, and you’ll say, how can I contribute?

“[Rotary is] this desire in people to help others without reward”

Leo Farrelly, District Governor of Rotary