[CW EXTRA] In case you haven’t been downtown this week, Salt Lake City’s been invaded by 15,000-plus Rotarians. Carolyn Jones, a longtime friend of mine from Alaska, happens to be a Rotarian who holds the distinction of being the first and currently only woman to serve on the Rotary International Foundation, the arm which raises money, invests it and develop the grant programs to enable Rotarians to do humanitarian works around the world. Jones was featured in the June 21 5 Spot column in City Weekly. This is the unabridged version of that conversation:
How long have you been a Rotarian?
I was inducted in September of 1987. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in May of 1987. It basically said a Rotary club in California could not refuse to accept an individual as a Rotarian simply based on gender. The day after that decision, I got a phone call from a Rotarian inviting me to lunch. That happened to a lot of women in Alaska.
How does it feel to crash the glass ceiling?
Women have been in Rotary for 20 years, and all this time, there hasn’t been any woman in a leadership role. I understood personally it was a ladder you had to climb like anybody else, and it was going to take time. But for a lot of people, what they saw was that there were no [women] at the top. They particularly had this shoved in their faces at an international convention. It was a tradition to introduce all the past presidents, the current president and the board, the trustees, and they’re all men. Two years ago, I got this appointment. Now when they introduce the trustees, I get the most applause. I tell [my fellow trustees], “It’s not Carolyn they’re applauding. It’s that I represent a female face finally walking across the stage.” What is, is. It’s a little piece of history. On the other hand, I don’t enjoy being thought of as the first female trustee because I just want to be a trustee. I want to believe I earned it. I want other people to believe I’m there because I belong there.
Will there be any “firsts” at the Salt Lake City convention?
Tomorrow (June 20), the voting delegates are scheduled to elect the next round of district governors and directors. One of them is a woman. That is a first. It’s interesting because back when we had the lawsuit in 1985-86, Rotary International was defending their rule to be an all-male organization. Some places were defending it more strongly than others. And two countries that were most serious about having all men were Japan and France. Well, this year, when we went to the international assembly, I met the first female district governor-elect from Japan. And would you care to guess where the first woman director is going to come from? Paris, France. Another little piece of history is happening. The glass ceiling is cracking all over the place.
Why should someone join Rotary International?
Our membership has been declining in the United States while it has been increasing in Asia and Europe. We are struggling with trying to show young people that Rotary is relevant to their lives. I believe that young people care as much about their communities and the world as the rest of us do. It’s just how do they go about putting a piece of themselves into the mix. In Colorado, there is an “e-club.” The Rotarians meet over the Internet. It’s just like regular Rotary and has community service projects you can participate in. It’s in the experimental stages. I’m called a traditionalist; people like me like clubs and meetings. We even play cards, bridge. Young people multi-task and use electronic equipment. In Northern Virginia, we have “new generation” clubs. They get a chance to invent themselves in a way that they can make happen.
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in Rotary?
The children of Russia. I even wrote a story about it that was published in Chicken Soup for the Volunteer Soul. I once went to a hospital in Russia where children were dying of cancer because the hospital didn’t have enough money to purchase chemotherapy. The new Rotary club there said, “This is our project. We want to raise money to save the lives of these children. Will you come see them and meet with the doctors?” So I took myself there and thought, “Now, I’ve been polite, and I’ll ask a few people to help.” But, basically, the kids and the story had its hooks in me. Within six weeks, my district had launched the Children of Russia program. It was our goal that every new club in Russia would be eligible for a $20,000 grant to do something in their community to help the children of Russian. The year I was district governor, we raised $620,000 and financed 30 projects in 22 communities to help kids. Since then, it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s also become my life. People would invite me to come and tell the story. I’ve become a public speaker as a result of it. When I tell the story, grown men cry and ask how they can help. I have been to Russian 29 times. It has become the definition of me in Rotary, and it is the large reason why I got the recognition and the credentials to be nominated to be a trustee. (Jerre Wroble)