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of another state university foundation, who
also was a Rotarian, and the media made
the University of Oklahoma Foundation
guilty by association. On June 30, 1987, at
10pm, two hours before I became District
Governor, I had my finger in my Rotary-
dial telephone, and I was poised to say I
was not going to serve. I sat with my finger
frozen there for 30 minutes, but I didn’t
make the call. It was the best thing I ever
did. I served as an RI Director from 1998
to 2000, and after that Past RI President
Jim Lacy told me he had put my name in
for President. That’s the first time I’d ever
thought about the office. I thought, “If Jim
thinks I can do that job, then I think I can
do that job”.
TR: What is at the top of your to-do list?
BURToN: To get Rotarians off their
butts and get them involved. It’s time to
move this organisation forward. I’m really
putting this on my District Governors.
We’ve got to lead by example. The theme
I’ve chosen is Engage Rotary, Change
Lives. If you truly get involved in Rotary,
it’s going to change your life. You can’t
stop that. In that process of engagement,
you’re going to change a lot of lives, and
you can’t stop that either. I can’t imagine
how many lives have been touched and
changed by Rotarians over the years, but
the life that’s going to be changed most
of all is your own.
TR: There are many skills involved in
being a leader in Rotary. Which ones are
in short supply?
BURToN: To some extent, confidence – in
the sense of, “If I do something, it’s going
to make a big difference”. I think Rotarians
are afraid of success. I’m trying to do
something about that. I say this from the
stage a lot: Membership isn’t my problem,
it’s John’s problem; but John thinks it’s
not his problem, it’s Linda’s problem;
and Linda thinks it’s Larry’s problem. The
fact is, it’s a problem for all of us. We’ve
got to get that message through, from
District Governors to club members. That
doesn’t mean that all Rotarians have
great leadership skills, but they do have a
responsibility to share what they’ve been
given with others in the community.
TR: Every president has 12 months. How
much good or harm can one person do
in that time?
BURToN: I’d like to think a person can’t do
much harm from the simple standpoint of
how the organisation is structured. You’ve
got a Board of Directors and 34,000
autonomous clubs, which is probably the
greatest insurance policy in the world,
because many of the clubs, whether we
like to admit it or not, are oblivious to
what happens in Evanston. While that has
some downsides, it also has upsides. And
I don’t think anybody who could get to
this level would want to do intentional
harm to the organisation. But I think you
can do a lot on the good side, and I’m
hoping my message gets people excited
about their membership and eager to
share that with others.
TR: Rotary puts a great premium on
fellowship. What intensity of conflict
between members is compatible with
BURToN: Boy, that’s a tough question.
You’ve got religious issues, which are
difficult to deal with, and political issues,
which are probably the most divisive.
At the institutes, I have seen religious
factions who are sceptical of one another,
but the fact that they are having a meal
together and enjoying fellowship speaks
volumes as to what Rotary can do.
TR: What is the most challenging
accommodation or adjustment you have
to make because of this job?
BURToN: Trying to find a happy balance
between what you can do within the time
constraints you face. Rotarians put a lot of
demands on their President. It’s not about
me. It’s all about the myth of the office,
and I understand that. Rotarians need to
understand that while we would love to
visit ever y place we’ve been invited to,
there’s only so much time. Would it be
better to visit Brazil or Egypt? What would
do the most good for the organisation?
Deciding how I can continue to raise the
bar of Rotary International and make the
greatest impact – that’s the challenge.
TR: Are there expectations for this office
that you would change?
BURToN: The job is to be the head
cheerleader and get the message out
to the most important people in the
organisation: average Rotarians. I think
it all happens at the club level. Rotary
International is nothing more than an
association of Rotary clubs. We need to
be as responsive as we can, realising that
you’re not going to please everybody.
I think our job is to keep the myth. This is
a special place. To come here, to take the
tour, to walk into the President’s office, it’s
like seeing Bill Skelton across the hall in
Toronto again. We’ve got to preserve that,
regardless of who’s sitting here.
TR: What’s the Rotary story least told?
BURToN: When we eradicate polio, Rotary
will make the front page of the New York
Times, but good news doesn’t generally
sell. Local efforts, like giving money to
Meals on Wheels or buying library books
and reading to children, are what we need
to be doing. That’s the untold story – and
that’s the collective impact of Rotary.
TR: Do you have a recruitment speech?
BURToN: My recruitment speech is not a
30-second elevator pitch. It’s this: Let me
tell you about this wonderful organisation
that I happen to be a member of. Rotary
can change your life, because it will
put you in contact with people in your
community, no matter where you live. No
two clubs do exactly the same thing, but
on an international level, we’re about to
eradicate polio. You have to be invited
to join, but I can put you in contact with
someone in your community. You can
blindfold me in front of a map of the
world, and I can throw a dart, and if it hits
any piece of land, I will know somebody
there and somebody there will know me.
Where else can you have that kind of
TR: You meet Rotarians from all around
the world. How do you communicate
when you don’t share the language?
BURToN: You find a way. It’s body
language, it’s eye contact, it’s the sincerity
that you feel and exude when you’re
visiting people. In my case now, there’s
usually an interpreter. In one speech, I
told the audience that it’s time to get your
“ask” in gear, but the interpreter didn’t
hear the “k .” The audience died laughing.
They loved it. In Rotary, you find a way
TR: When visiting other cultures, you
must sometimes be asked to don native
dress or engage in a local custom outside
your comfort zone. Where do you draw
BURToN: Have you seen me dancing to
“Gangnam Style” in Australia? Did you see
me as Shakespeare at the Birmingham
convention? I’ve been known to do a
bunch of pretty stupid things for Rotary.
I want people to understand that I’m a
Rotarian just like they are. I put my pants
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