Social Capital and Provo Rotary’s Centennial

Social Capital and Provo Rotary’s Centennial, November 2019

By Don Jarvis


Cooperation is what Rotary is all about, but America is somewhat conflicted about cooperation. This country was settled by people who thought differently from others around them. French historian Alexis de Toqueville traveled extensively in early nineteenth-century America and found that individualism was more widespread here than in Europe but was balanced by a willingness to gather together for specific purposes.

“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact.” (1840)

That ethic of grouping to promote causes was dominant well into the 20th Century, and Rotary grew in that era. Rotary was founded by Chicago attorney Paul Harris, who missed the friendships of the small town where he grew up. Harris gathered three colleagues in 1905 to form the Rotary Club of Chicago, “so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships.”

Just fourteen years after Paul Harris founded Rotary in Chicago, nineteen Provoans organized Provo Rotary Club and received an official charter on 1 November of that same year. It is significant that those Rotarians chose as their first president the Reverend W.F. Bulkley, minister of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a tiny mission congregation in the midst of Utah Mormondom.

Provo Rotary thrived for most of the 20th Century. A few snippets of its history are captured in the Centennial history that we recently collected and printed. 90 members were present for a 50th anniversary photo in 1969, and 52 were in the 75th anniversary photo of 1995. Today our total enrollment is down but holding steady at 42 and includes nine women, although we are fortunate if we get twenty members to attend weekly meetings.


While Rotary is not shrinking world-wide, our club’s present small size reflects the plight of most American service clubs and a general lessening of interest in group activities like organized religion and bowling clubs.

Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam described the catastrophic disappearance of all forms of in-person interaction in America and argues that this aloneness undermines what he calls social capital, the active civil engagement which a community and a democracy needs from its citizens. He and many economists rate social capital as important as is financial capital in the long run.

Of course, churches promote cooperation, and most Utahns belong to one. My church is happy to accept all my spare time and money and helps knit our neighborhood together. Some might ask why Rotary is needed.

One answer is found in our service projects, most of which would not have been done by a church. Over the years we have engaged in dozens of service projects. They include a BYU student loan fund in Provo Rotary’s early years, two big Provo parks, dictionaries for every Provo 3rd grader, wheelchairs for Peru, eye exams and glasses for Mexicans and Africans, a climbing wall at the Provo Recreation Center, planting grow-boxes with residents of South Franklin Community Center, annual donations to Rotary International to eradicate polio worldwide and to help fund hundreds of other projects.

Another reason for Rotary membership is our weekly lunches where we learn about community activities we would never hear about in church. Since July of 2019 we have heard about justice for cold cases, brain health, micro-loans in the Philippines, advances at Intermountain Healthcare, the 80 MW Clover Creek solar project for Provo’s electricity and many other important topics.

We have also learned about our Rotarian friends, such as how Robert Vernon helps indigent Provoans find housing, what books Pete Pletsch and Bob Redd have been reading, how much trivia Paul Warner knows, how Amber Tarbox is doing with her chemotherapy, what mischief Ruth Riley will get into after retiring, what Lance Nelson knows about funerals, and why Bill Freeze was called “Bullet” as a BYU student after literally shooting himself in the foot.

We Rotarians sense that Putnam is right about social capital being at least as important as financial capital for the world, for America, for Provo and for us personally. As Yogi Berra once said about friendship, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.” All of us Rotarians sense that both Putnam and Yogi Berra are right. Paul Harris had a good idea to encourage friends to meet and work together. Our world, Provo and we personally all benefit from the Provo Rotary Club that nineteen Provoans started 100 years ago. We intend to keep Provo Rotary going.

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