The Rotary Club of Salt Lake had its beginnings in January 1911, a little more than five years after the first Rotary Club was organized in Chicago in 1905. But it took a bold move by the Commercial Club to bring it about.
The Salt Lake Rotary Club grew out of a conversation in Chicago between Wesley King of the National Copper Bank of Salt Lake and his Spanish-American war buddy, Chesley Perry, secretary of the Chicago Rotary Club and the “sparkplug” of Rotary’s expansion to San Francisco in 1908, and to fourteen other clubs by 1910. After his return, King discussed the idea with several prominent Salt Lake men, according to historian Leonard J. Arrington.
King contacted Joy Johnson, president of the Commercial Club, as the Chamber was then known. Upon choosing fifteen men to become charter members, King and Johnson wrote to Rotary headquarters in Chicago for instructions. The answer was troubling–the group couldn’t meet two criteria. First the host city had to have a population of 100,000, and according to the 1910 census, Salt Lake fell short by 7,500. King and Johnson persuaded Salt Lake’s mayor, John S. Bransford, to sign an affidavit certifying the city’s population had grown and residents now numbered more than 100,000.
The second condition was that three existing clubs had to endorse the application. This proved difficult. Rotary then had only twenty-three clubs, the nearest being three on the Pacific Coast. Two of the three clubs (San Francisco and Oakland) refused approval. For many years Salt Lake City was divided along Mormon and “gentile” lines. Each group distrusted the other and strove for dominance. Members of the two West Coast clubs thought a Rotary brotherhood could not be built in such a social climate.
The two clubs demanded that the Salt Lake club be formed entirely of Mormons or non-Mormons. “Those were the days,” wrote King, “when The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News made faces at each other every day. Most every day, the editorial writer for The Tribune chewed up a Mormon and spit him out the window, and that evening the Deseret News massacred a gentile…”
At this juncture Johnson, as president of the Commercial Club, took steps to “melt the ice barrier which clearly divided this fine community into two camps” by inviting the owner of each newspaper and magazine in Salt Lake, church leaders, bankers, business and professional men, and civic leaders to be his guests at luncheon at the Commercial Club. The situation was explained to the group. Wesley King later described what Joy Johnson then did:
He boldly locked the dining room doors and announced that he would “only unlock them when an agreement was reached looking toward a condition of amity in this community.”
That started to melt the ice, according to historian Arrington. It took the vitriol out of future newspaper editorials. Armed with proof of these facts, Johnson went to the West Coast and returned with the necessary endorsements to form the club. Rotary Club 24 held its first meeting the evening of January 31, 1911. Members selected long-time Chamber activist H.L.A. Culmer (see photo on page 39) as president with officers John S. Critchlow, vice president; Dean F. Brayton, secretary; and King, treasurer. Early Rotary members included Charles A. Quigley, Benjamin Franklin Redman, and Thomas F. Thomas.
While the original aim of the club was promoting the business interests of its members, Rotary soon turned its attention to other projects that would better the community and state in general, including parks and road improvements.
Sources: Leonard J. Arrington, History of the Salt Lake Rotary Club, 1911-1981 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Publishers Press 1981) and Salt Lake Rotary Club Web site (www.slcrotary.org).