Everett Hill’s Journey into Rotary Leadership
By Barney Semtner
You often wonder what inspires leaders to lead. In the case of Everett Hill, it was a fateful Sunday meeting of the Boys’ Committee of the Shawnee Rotary Club in 1918. Another Rotarian led this meeting with ten young boys picked from the streets of Shawnee, and it was said “a harder, more skeptical group of boys would be difficult to assemble anywhere.” The Rotary Club had been meeting with these boys trying to teach them how to play and act and to reclaim and socialize them if possible.
That Sunday, the Rotary leader asked if these boys knew what a prayer was. The boys looked at each other uncertain, no one saying a word. Two or three snickered self-consciously, but the greater number looked bored. What did they know or care about prayer?
After a long silent moment, one of the boys, a nine-year old newcomer to the group spoke up. He and his little sister, who was four year old, had been found on a cold night a short time before huddled up in a dry goods box cold, hungry and half naked.
The boy said, “I guess, Mister, I know what a prayer is. ‘fore my mother died she talked to a man ‘at she called God. She tol’ him she was goin’ to die. An’ she asked ‘im to take keer o’ sister ‘n me.” After a long pause, in a very silent room, the boy continued.
“I guess the man-God must a fergot what mama tol’ ‘im. Fer he never took no keer o’ us. We got awful hungry! An’ we dident have no place to sleep. It was awful cold. Our clo’es got tore, but we cuddent git no new ones. We wanted our mama. But we cuddent have her, fer she was dead.”
After a long silent moment, the Rotarian leader asked the boy if he would say a prayer. He said he would try and commenced:
“Man-God, mama said a prayer to you a long time ago. She tol’ you to take keer o’ sister ‘n me. But I guess you must a fergot us. We ain’t had no clo’es an’ we ain’t had nothin’ to eat.”
He went on in this same vein, reminding his “man-God” of all the things he and his little sister had suffered since his mother’s death.
He did not speak resentfully, only wonderingly, that anyone could have forgotten to comply with a request his mother had made. Finally, he said,
“Man-God, I wish you wuddent fergit sister ‘n me. I love little sister. I don’t want ‘er to be took ‘way frum me. I promised mama I’ud take keer o’ ‘er. But, Man-God, I don’ know how to take keer o’ ‘er. I got ‘er eve’thin’ to eat I cud, but we was awful hungry.”
His voice broke and he half sobbed.
“I ain’t got no father. But I wish I had some big man to help me. A big man like one of these here in this room. I b’leev I could get ‘long all right if I had a big man like one o’ these to help me. I want one so bad!”
A moment later the men quietly dismissed the meeting and went home, each pondering deeply over what he had seen and heard that morning.
For Everett Hill, a wonderful light began to shine – a light of a new life purpose. He would see that the little boy’s prayer was answered. And more, he would see that the prayers of thousands of other youth in the world also were answered.
As a direct result of this telling, he saw to it more than seven thousand boys started in life with good educations. In addition, thousands of men and women in this and other countries, who were touched by Everett Hill’s fire and enthusiasm, caught his vision by child helpfulness and have quietly carried on the work he started through Rotary.
The story of the little boy’s prayer, carried by Everett Hill as Rotary International President in 1924, aroused millions of men and women to the needs of childhood and the opportunity of doing service in their behalf.
Everett Wentworth Hill was the only member of Oklahoma City Rotary Club 29 to ever serve as president of Rotary International. He grew up in Russell, Kansas and attended the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. Upon graduation, he spent several years working for Standard Oil Company before deciding he wanted to work for himself. Hill founded the Western Ice and Cold Storage Company in Shawnee. By 1930 he had 15 ice plants serving over 100 communities and had in excess of 600 employees. The Great Depression was hard on Hill and he had to close his ice business in 1932.
Hill moved to Oklahoma City from Shawnee in 1922, already having served as president of the Shawnee Rotary Club and as District Governor of Rotary. As a member of Club 29, he served as RI President in 1924. In 1938, Hill was named an Honorary Member of our Club. In 1957 he adopted Senior Active status and continued his membership until his death in 1978. A true leader who inspired many, Hill’s passion came through his experience in service to others through Rotary. May we all experience the light that ignites “Service Above Self” like Everett Hill.
(This is a reprint of a Rotary Reflections column originally printed in 2007 with exerpts from “A Biography of Everett Wentworth Hill” by Rex Harlow, Harlow Publishing,1930).