by Ted Streuli
There are two things I tell newcomers to Oklahoma City: It’s the most welcoming city I’ve lived in and it’s the smallest town of a million people on the planet. Who needs Kevin Bacon? We’d have trouble getting all the way to six levels of separation.
Advice to newcomers: Be careful who you badmouth; you’re probably talking to their best friend from high school.
In other cities, someone brings a new idea to the floor and the city council and chamber of commerce spend the night talking about why it won’t work. Here, a decent idea, no matter from whom it comes, gets a pause and then someone says, “Hey, you know, that’s a pretty good idea. How do we make that work?” And we end up with canal boats and river boats and paddle boats in the middle of the southern prairie.
Science fiction writer Robin Hobb said there is little in life so reassuring as a genuine welcome, a sentiment William Shakespeare, writing more than four centuries earlier expressed thusly: “Small cheer and great welcome make a merry feast.”
Who hasn’t been the new one in the room and endured that awkwardness? Am I in the right place? Will I fit in? Variations of the real question: Do they want me?
Club 29 is pretty good at welcoming with greeters at the door and more hellos at the badge box. Our system goes out of its way to introduce new members with photos and bios and the shaking of a hundred hands. But Rotary didn’t start out with such open arms. Our classification system in Rotary’s earliest days was meant to thwart competition; before we were a service club, Rotary was a gathering of businessmen who agreed to patronize one another, so it was in the best interest of all to have just one publisher, one plumber, one lawyer, one banker. Of course, the folly of the exclusiveness revealed itself quickly; although the club’s classification system remained intact, the benefits of service above self quickly outshone the idea of commercial friendship.
At least that’s the version I was told when I first became a Rotarian in 1988. The official version from Rotary International’s website today is a little vague on that point.
“Rotary started with the vision of one man — Paul Harris,” the Rotary International site reads. “The Chicago attorney formed the Rotary Club of Chicago on 23 February 1905, so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas and form meaningful, lifelong friendships.
“Over time, Rotary’s reach and vision gradually extended to humanitarian service.”
The classification system now exists to ensure a cross section of the business community is represented.
When Club 29 welcomes new members, we ask sponsors to introduce them at a board meeting breakfast the precedes orientation. Introduction aside, having the sponsor there is especially important to helping the new member feel welcome in a roomful of strangers. We could just publish short bios on the website and let members come to meetings on their own, but that’s not how we grew to be one of the world’s largest Rotary clubs. We got there, in part, because we are a welcoming bunch. We spend a little extra time, go to a little extra effort, to help newcomers know they are wanted.
Sponsors are welcome to stay with their new members through the orientation. I like to do that, but I’ll concede that in my experience I’m the exception rather than the rule, and I think that’s a loss. I like to see it through with a friend I’ve invited to join our club. Sitting through the orientation reminds me of taking visiting family members on the Korbel winery tour when I lived in Northern California; everyone wanted to go, and I’d been on the tour so many times I knew the spiel by heart. I came to consider a job as a Korbel tour guide my emergency employment plan if things ever went south in the news business, figuring they’d hire me immediately as I’d need no training. Like a Rotary orientation, I could have dropped Uncle George and Aunt Mabel off at Korbel’s front door, but I never did, opting instead to go from riddling room to tasting room along with them. Like sitting with a new member at orientation, it just seems like the welcoming thing to do.
And with small cheer and a great welcome, we’re certain to have a merry feast come Tuesday.