Luis Giay, the 86th RI president, has left us, leaving us only with some wonderful memories. He was adored by the Rotary world and was the doyen of South America Rotary. His theme was “Build the future with action and vision”. A man of wisdom and a huge capacity to love others, he said, “I believe that civilisation is like a big building made out of bricks, thousands and thousands of bricks. Each of us is a brick supporting the grand structure we call humanity.” That’s why the colour of his jacket was brick red. I used to call Luis ‘El Capitán’, Spanish for captain.
He was a public accountant and a businessman, and both of us had the same love — rally car racing. Luis was very good and became a champion at a high level of competition. At one of the races at the starting grid he saw a bright young woman with brown eyes and long hair in the next car navigating for her father. He’d say that in that one second on the starting grid of the race he knew this woman, Celia, was going to become his wife! He never said whether he won or lost that race with such a distraction!
Luis and Celia made a dashing couple. Celia distinguished herself in her own right. A school teacher, a music professor, a news reporter, vivacious and charming, she became the vice-president of RI in 2014–15. Surely she could not have achieved that without the unyielding backing of her devoted husband. Luis’s career in Rotary was born when he became a member of RC Arrecifes, near Buenos Aires, the same town where he was born. He was 22 then and most of the other members were old enough to be his father and some even grandfather.
The first time I saw Luis at close quarters was when Vanathy and I walked into the Training Leaders (discussion leaders) opening reception in Anaheim, Los Angeles, in January 1993 and he with Celia received us at the door as the assistant moderator. The moderator was PRID Keith Burnham.
I was picked to repeat a second year and he became my moderator and his team was known as ‘Giay’s Global Genius’. I recognised in Luis even then the qualities of a born leader and a complete man. It wasn’t just his in-depth knowledge of Rotary. It wasn’t even his ability to quickly assess a person and adjust himself to that person’s level; It wasn’t his superb speaking skills in English, Spanish and Portuguese. He would often start his speech in English by claiming that his English was not good, but no one was fooled by that because it was excellent. But I say he is a leader because, as someone said, he is not a pessimist who complains about the wind, nor the optimist who expects the wind to change. But a leader who adjusts his sails to the wind. Plus, he had social skills — superb on the piano, ability to barbecue a delectable steak, and so light on his feet on the dance floor!
The first major committee I served on was a year later when Luis had been nominated as president. Luis put me into his committee to develop his theme. The chair of the committee was PRID Howard Vann and the vice-chair PRIP Paolo Costa. I saw him masterfully steering that committee without in anyway usurping the position of the chair. It was also good to see the jousting and the thrust and parry between Paolo and Luis, clearly great friends — Luis was the aide to Paolo when he was president.
When I was nominated to the Board of Trustees in 2004, Luis was trustee chair. He put me into the investment committee. After the first meeting
I went up to him and asked to be relieved from the committee as it was much too complex for me. He took me aside and said, “when you become president you will need to know about investments. So, stay there and learn the subject!”
When he was RI president, the TRF trustee chair was Rajendra Saboo. They were the original architects of the Rotary Peace Centres and again it was the two of them who were in South Africa with Nelson Mandela to launch the “Kick polio out of Africa” campaign in 1996. Those two indeed were a powerful team that year.
Luis was the master who steered TRF’s Future Vision Committee for several years and brought it to fruition. Our Foundation owes him so much. As chair of the committee he had a clear vision of what was wanted and where the Foundation should go. His committee included PRIPs Ron Burton, Mark Maloney and the present trustee Gulam Vahanvaty.
He was one of three past presidents I relied on heavily when I was president myself. He never failed me with his advice and assistance and I recall him turning up at my apartment one evening with two bottles of very special Malbec wine he had carried from Argentina! He had been assigned by me to restart Rotary in Cuba.
One morning in 2001 Luis was in New York talking to Evanston on the phone whilst looking out from one of the high floor hotel rooms he was occupying, and he noticed in the near horizon, a low flying aircraft and he did wonder at that. And the next instant, the aircraft flew straight into the World Trade Centre building! He was literally an eyewitness to the events of 9/11.
There was a gentleness about Luis, a largeness of sensibility, a love for fellow Rotarians felt by all those who came into contact with him. At our home in Sri Lanka one evening I saw how he left the main table at dinner to go sit with my other club friends — regaling and engrossing them with his stories, and Luis was a good story teller — in a space of 15–20 minutes he could relate the struggle, the conflict and the resolution. He and Celia brought a glow to the presidency of Rotary, a breath of fresh air and a pause for beauty and love.
Hasta la vista, El Capitán! We will miss your cherubic face and your disarming smile. And I echo Shakespeare’s beautiful words from Hamlet “Good night, sweet prince; may the flight of angels take thee to thy eternal rest.”
The writer is a past RI president.