In the passing of Clem Renouf, Rotary has lost one of its senior statesmen, and one of its most respected leaders. The younger generation of Rotary may not be as familiar with him as others but he was a giant in Rotary in his own right.
Clem was 99 when he died and his wife Firth is just over 100. In 1978, when I was a 26-year-old member of my club and serving as its bulletin editor, Park Nadesan, a senior past governor and member of my club, RC Colombo, was the chairman of our District Conference. Park was a brilliant orator with a stentorian voice, a former secretary to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, a top civil servant and generally well respected.
He told me that the chief guest for our conference was RI President Clem Renouf himself and asked me to interview him in his hotel for our club magazine.
Not able to say no to Park, I agreed.
Interviewing an RI President at 26!
It did not occur to me then that being offered an opportunity to interview an RI President was a big deal and I agreed to do my job in a rather perfunctory manner.
I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to be confronted with a genial and a pleasant person who showed a young lad (with long hair) so much courtesy and kindness and actually helped me to do my job!
But I had no contact with him till 1994 when I ran into him again quite accidentally at the departure lounge in Brisbane airport. By then I was knowledgeable enough in Rotary to know Clem Renouf was a part of Rotary folklore and I did not want to miss the opportunity to talk to him.
During our conversation, I invited him and Firth to Sri Lanka. They not only came over but spent several days with Vanathy and me in our family plantation in the mountains and we became close friends.
A fascinating storyteller
Clem was a fascinating storyteller and during their stay, he had me enthralled talking about the many challenges he had to encounter when he was President. His birth date, incidentally, was the same as that of Paul Harris.
Firth was his second wife; he married her after his wife June died. It was a match made up by their respective children, after both of them had lost their spouses. They had lived next door to each other.
There is a beautiful letter he wrote to all his close friends, including PRIP Raja Saboo, explaining why he chose to marry again after losing his beloved June and he published this letter in his book One Man’s Journey. It turned out to be a good decision because Firth and Clem were not only a couple but also great friends.
When I went to see him in the late nineties, he was there at the Brisbane airport to meet me and drive me back to his house — a beautiful home literally overhanging into a river. He told me I was the first guest in his new house. Interestingly, there was only one Rotary photograph in the guest bedroom and it was one of him with the Prime Minister of India at a garden party in Delhi.
On a subsequent visit I found that they had sold that home and had moved into a smaller home in a secured village. I visited him again in 2012. By then his hearing had dropped but his wit and spirit remained the same. We went out for lunch, joined by another legendary Aussie — Brian Knowles and spouse, and Clem regaled us with his stories.
My last visit to Australia in Nov 2019 was the last time I saw him, this time in a retirement home and looking very frail. He presented me with a signed copy of his book and I did not have the heart to tell him that he had already given me a copy of that book.
Firth was also there and she told us that at 101 years, she still drives although her insurance costs a lot!
In 1988 he was conferred knighthood by the Queen and he became Sir Clement William Bailey Renouf.
Clem was a person who had extravagant charm, intense generosity, a sharp wit, genuine humour, and a whole-souled view of leadership.
We should celebrate Clem’s life and not mourn his passing. Good Night Sir Clem, thank you for the memories.
The writer is a past president of Rotary International.
3H Programme was Renouf’s brainchild
The Health, Hunger, and Humanity programme of RI (3H) was the brainchild of Sir Clem Renouf in 1978–79. But I’ll leave that story to be related first hand by PRIP Saboo, who had a ringside seat. It’s a story worth listening to and having knowledge of. It’s one of the stories that transformed Rotary to what it is today — with the ability to take on the eradication of a disease. If not for Clem Renouf, we would probably not have the PolioPlus programme.
He was an accountant. But he was also a pilot who flew combat missions in World War II, based out of Malaysia. He spoke of a time when he had to personally visit the mother of his best friend Don Campbell to tell her that her son had died. (He had died on an aircraft beside him on a mission.) But she would not believe him and instead clung desperately to the hope that her son would return.
Clem clocked 1690 combat hours of flying before he retired from the air force at the age of 24. He was invited to Rotary because the other accountant in the town — Jasper Bentley declined the invitation. So he always used to say he was a second choice Rotarian!
Nominated to serve as a President of Rotary International in 1978, his theme was Reach Out. He wanted a theme which reflected his personality, and which could be translated into action. He used to say ‘You cannot reach out with your hands in your pocket’!