For McInally, Rotary is about continuity… and heart

I don’t want to be patronising when I talk about the rank-and-file Rotarians in India, because we are all rank-and-file Rotarians, but the passion and pride among the Rotarians in the clubs is simply energising. I have been in India during the last three days; In Chennai, Madurai and now Kolkata… and will be going to Nagpur, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. To witness that passion and pride is fantastic!”

Gordon and Heather McInally with daughters Rebecca (L) and Sarah.
Gordon and Heather McInally with daughters Rebecca (L) and Sarah.

I catch up with incoming RI president Gordon McInally and his spouse Heather at the Lakshya event in the ‘city of joy’. They are fun to talk to and appear totally at home… whether it is Heather donning the colourful yellow silk saree or Gordon sporting the purple kurta and crooning away on the stage and later dancing to Bollywood music along with the Rotarians. Spicy Indian food? No problem, he simply loves it.

But make no mistake about it; the extremely articulate incoming RI president is a straight shooter; he doesn’t mince his words, but you also know those words come straight from the heart. Like when he says, “Rotary is as much about what’s in your heart, as in your pocket!”


No stranger to Rotary in India, over the years he has closely followed it “in the magazines and over the social media. I know that Rotary is so vibrant here, there is so much passion and pride among the members.” He talks enthusiastically about the new Rotary club he had chartered only the previous night in Chennai… “with 97 charter members! That could be a record. We say there should be 20 members to charter a club. Director Venky says in India you like having 40 to charter a club. But to have 97 charter members, and all of them doctors, and available as a resource for other clubs to do medical projects, is amazing. And you’re leading the world in channelising CSR funds for service.”

Gordon McInally administering polio drops in Pakistan. TRF trustee Aziz Memon is on his right.
Gordon McInally administering polio drops in Pakistan. TRF trustee Aziz Memon is on his right.

But, as always, added the president-elect, “there is an elephant in the room, and that elephant is the politics. And that makes me sad because if we could eliminate some of the politics, then India would be an even brighter shining beacon in Rotary. I am not going to tell you that I have an answer to that. It has to come from within.”

Gordon and Heather McInally with their granddaughter Ivy.
Gordon and Heather McInally with their granddaughter Ivy.

Striking a candid note, McInally said: “The number of election disputes and complaints that come to the RI Board out of India way outnumber any other part of the Rotary world and that sometimes colours Rotary’s world judgement and view on India. I’ve seen a different side of it because I am interested in what happens in India, and you certainly are creating hope in the world.”

We have to get away from the single year mentality… the ego of the president. Nice though it is to be received at airports with garlands, I can see that it often gets into some people’s heads.

That is of course his presidential theme and we move to why he selected it. “Over many years I had seen Rotary giving hope to people who were at their absolutely lowest, as the woman in Thailand who had lost everything in the tsunami (of 2004)… her husband, children and her home. She told me she had lost everything, including hope. But Rotary gave her hope by giving her a new home.” To express her gratitude, she gave him a shell. “That shell has been in my home for 15 years, reminding me of that woman and how Rotary gave her hope.”


Similarly Rotary has given hope to innumerable people; he had personally seen it in Africa; in Rwanda where he had worked with the children after the genocide, as also to the 4-year-old girl in Manila whose heart was mended through a Rotary project. While watching that surgery, his phone buzzed, and he later saw it was a picture of his smiling 4-year-old granddaughter ready for her first day at school. “I was happy because that little girl at the operating table had also been given hope by Rotary to live a similar life to my granddaughter… go to school, get an education and be happy. People can lose a lot, but if they get to the stage where they lose hope, they’ve come to the very bottom. So this theme is more than words… it’s a call to action.”


Coming to his Rotary journey, McInally joined RC South Queensferry, Scotland, in 1984, when he was only 26, relatively newly married to Heather, who he “met through music. Heather is a professional opera singer and we met in our late teens. We both graduated and then got married in 1980.” The couple shifted just outside of Edinburgh, and through their church met a farmer who was a Rotarian. He invited them first for a social event and then Gordon to two Rotary meetings. “I enjoyed these, not realising that I was being groomed for membership!”


He was the youngest member of the club and remained so for a few years; “now, 39 years later, I am probably one of the five youngest members of the club. The whole club has aged and that is the challenge that Rotary faces, in my part of the world in particular,” he admits.

The elephant in the room is the politics. That makes me sad because if we could eliminate some of the politics, then India would be an even brighter shining beacon in Rotary.

He remained just “a member of a Rotary club, like so many others, till something happens to make you a Rotarian!” In his case, it was within a year of his joining, when he heard PRIP Bill Huntley from England speak. “He was a wonderful speaker who spoke about his Rotary journey and what Rotary was achieving beyond the club, district and the zone. I remember thinking that day that I get this… I know what this is all about! It is not just about local or even national issues. This is a worldwide network of people who are united, have the same mind, and could do things together to make the world a better place. It is one thing to make your village a better place but if you have the potential to make the world a better place, then how much better is that!”


These thoughts flashed across the young dentist’s mind and he was convinced that through Rotary he could leave a meaningful impact on other parts of the world as well.

McInally became president of his club at 33, governor at 39, RIBI (Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland) president at 46 and an RI director at 49. He served on the Board along with Ashok Mahajan from 2007–09. Then he took a bit of rest to “get my business affairs in order. To be perfectly honest, I never saw Rotary as a career path, I’ve always made myself available to do jobs when needed. I’ve chaired the Toronto convention and the operations review committee. And then, as I suspect happens to a lot of people, some of the past presidents and other senior leaders tap you on the shoulder and say “Have you considered standing for president? And that’s what happened to me.”

Family time: (From L) Daughter Rebecca, Gordon, Sarah, Ivy and Heather.
Family time: (From L) Daughter Rebecca, Gordon, Sarah, Ivy and Heather.

Asked if he would give some time to his work, he shakes his head resolutely: “Not now. You can’t have a practice and do this… it is a full-time job! I had already decided to step back from full-time practice.”

People can lose a lot, but if they get to the stage where they lose hope, they’ve come to the very bottom.

So how did Heather receive the idea? “Well, she has been a Rotarian for 20 years, and president of not one, but two different clubs, so she’s one up on me!” quips McInally. “But we’ve always been a team, and when an opportunity comes up, we sit together and do an analysis. This time too we went into our standard conclave to decide whether I could bring anything to the table. We decided maybe I could and so here we are!”


The couple has two daughters, “who have grown up in Rotary,” but they were relatively young as he took up the role of a governor, RIBI president and RI director. “That wasn’t easy, but we were fortunate as they had very supportive grandparents, who took care of them when we had to be away.” Striking a poignant note, the incoming Rotary leader says: ‘Our one regret is that none of our parents are still alive. It would have been so nice to share this moment with them.”

Can you just imagine, if Rotary didn’t exist in India, or anywhere else, including my country… what a hole there would be, in terms of the social work we do.

On his priorities as RI president, McInally emphasises the importance of continuity. “You are never going to change the world in a year. When I was club president, governor and director, I spoke about this; we have to get away from the single year mentality… particularly the ego of the president. Nice though it is to be received at airports with garlands, I can see that it often gets into some people’s heads and they begin to believe their own publicity.”

At the Biodiversity Park in the Bombay University.
At the Biodiversity Park in the Bombay University.

But the fact is that “we are all Rotarians. I happen to be doing a job; this year the job I am doing is taking me away from the reason I joined Rotary, which was to be a member of my club. And work for it. So I’d like to get away from the mentality that it’s MY year. It is one of Rotary’s years and Rotary has been around for 118 years and it’ll be around for many, many more years.”

Gordon McInally at Machu Picchu in Peru.
Gordon McInally at Machu Picchu in Peru.

The new initiative that he is promoting this year is on mental health. “The world at this moment is in a very bad place as far as mental health is concerned, particularly because of Covid, and for far too long this has been a taboo subject. There is a stigma around it and people don’t want to say that they are suffering from anxiety or depression. From there it can get worse. So we need to open up the conversation, destigmatise it and remove the taboo. The challenges are very different in different areas.”


On the possibility of the world becoming polio-free during his year, McInally stops me and says: “It’s not MY year; it’s a Rotary year, but I know what you mean. Yes, we Rotarians think about it all the time. The WHO believes that by the end of this year we would have hopefully seen the last case of wild poliovirus infection. It is wonderful to think that we could see the last case of polio this year. But it’s not about me being the president when it happens but the fact that it will happen.”


On the next big Rotary initiative after polio is done and dusted, the incoming president smiles and says: “You’ve probably asked this question to other senior leaders before, and will get the same answer. We don’t want to think about anything else until polio is done. But, from a strictly personal point of view, I question whether we should or not rush into another global project on the same scale.” He is very happy with TRF’s new Programs of Scale — in Zambia and Nigeria. This could be a model for the future too. “From a very personal point, I’d love to see the mental health initiative become a long-term global project. I know it can’t be a 12-month project, and can say without breaching any confidence that Stephanie is very keen to continue it.”


Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and special arrangement

At a glance

Religious: I am a Christian, and have strong faith, so yes, I am religious.

Food: I love food, particularly Indian food. I do not find it spicy. The Indian food here is different from what we get in Scotland. But the Indian food in Scotland is good. As you can probably tell, from my size, I love all foods!

Cooking: Oh, I like cooking, I like preparing food. (Heather, when asked about his best preparation: “I’d say a lot of different things because Gordon does something that I don’t do — take a recipe and stick to it. Whereas I improvise. But he will do it exactly how it should be done and its good.”)

From L: Son-in-law Greg, daughter Rebecca, Heather, granddaughter Ivy, daughter Sarah and Gordon.
From L: Son-in-law Greg, daughter Rebecca, Heather, granddaughter Ivy, daughter Sarah and Gordon.

Music: I like all sorts of music. (Laughs). I do like opera and musical theatre. I lean towards the classical music side of things.

Movies: I don’t get much time to watch movies these days. Somebody asked me what is your favourite movie and I said Casablanca! That should tell you how much of movies I watch! (Heather: Mine is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so that’s as bad!) I’m not a big movie watcher because of the time it takes to watch a movie. If I want to fall asleep, I’ll watch a movie!

Reading: I like reading fiction, thrillers, particularly medical fiction. I am a big fan of Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs.

Favourite book: I enjoy reading the classics, Robert Louis Stevenson from Scotland of course. Kidnapped and Treasure Island, I love those books.

Dream for the world: I want to see a more peaceful world. A world where people are more tolerant. I want to dedicate this presidency to our two granddaughters and all the children of this world in the hope that we can make this world a better place in which they can grow and thrive. And that comes in many ways, just as you said about hope… hope can be interpreted in many ways. We are actually the same; the conflicts in the world are started by governments. If we can just get people to respect and talk to each other, there would be much less conflict in the world.

Ukraine, Syria conflicts: This is a measure of how much and why Rotary is needed by the world today. Conflict is a representative of disunity and we have a global network that is united. The world has never been more split and polarised. We have polarisation in countries but Rotary can bring people together and that’s why we need the strength of Rotary in places like India as all over the world, to be that uniting force and make things better for people. Can you just imagine, if Rotary didn’t exist in India, or anywhere else, including my country… what a hole there would be, in terms of the social good we do.

Attracting new members: By changing people’s perception of Rotary, and telling them what we are really all about. And making Rotary available to all, changing the style of clubs, and bringing in flexibility in when and how often we meet. All these things make it easier to join Rotary. I believe that to be a qualified Rotarian has as much to do with what’s in your heart as what’s in your pocket! Rotary has to be available to everyone everywhere, in a style that suits all… whether it is going to a lavish club for a 2–3-hour lunch or dinner, or a brief get together followed by project work. That’s what Rotary is about, the work, and not the meeting. That’s how we are going to attract the younger generation.


I ask Heather, the spouse of RIPE McInally, whether she felt proud or worried that her husband’s nomination as president-nominee would infringe so much more on his time. “Oh no, that’s never worried me because the family has been so involved in Rotary all our lives. Gordon was in Rotary before our elder daughter was born. So that’s never been a problem.”


But yes, one concern was their having to be away from the granddaughters. “This was clearly a little bit of a problem, but Covid changed all of us because it brought us all to Zoom. And during Covid we would be reading our granddaughters bedtime stories over Zoom.” The visual medium now allowed them to spend even more time with the grandchildren. “Believe me, they are always in touch, asking where are you now, can you send us pictures.”

On her husband’s achievement she says, with a twinkle in her eye: “I was proud, I still am; but don’t let him know that! The Scot in me says that I will never let him know how proud I am of him. But one thing is certain; we have always worked together all our lives in everything, whether it is Rotary or other things. I know what his thought process is and he knows what my thought process is, so we discussed it. And I was told very clearly before he put his name in, that if you don’t want it, I won’t do it!”.

McInally intervenes to emphasise the important role a Rotary spouse plays when the partner takes on a leadership position. “I’ve said this before, if you have a partner, you need her support. Stephanie, who is going to be president, doesn’t have a partner which tells us that you do not need to have a partner to be the president of RI. But I think at any leadership level in Rotary, be it a governor, director or president, if you have a partner, you need her/his support.”

So what has Heather’s support meant to him? “Oh, it means a lot. As she says we are a team but we are always independent; my job is my job and her job is her job. Often, we don’t see each other the whole day, most nights we are together but not every night. So from that point of view, we’re not unused to being on our own.”

At this point, Heather delivers a clear winner. “I’d like to use the expression we don’t live in each other’s pockets, but we always come home to be under the same roof at night.”

Women in Rotary

I show RIPE Gordon McInally the April cover story of Rotary News, featuring RID 3212’s flagship project Yadhumanaval to empower girls from smaller towns and villages of Tamil Nadu. “This is fascinating,” McInally responds. “But we are now beginning to transition our language about ‘empowering’ girls. I think it is patronising to say that I am going to empower you. I’d rather say I am going to help you to unlock the potential that is already there. So instead of empowering girls, let’s say ‘girls’ empowerment’. It might be a play on words but I think it’s an important distinction. It is not that we are giving power to you. You already have that power; we are going to help you unlock it. If we can lift up girls and women folk, then we can make inroads into virtually everything.”

On DEI and there being seven female governors from India on his team, he says it is significant. But the following year, the number reverts to one, I point out. McInally says, “But that is going to happen, partially because of the way we select governors. Past governors select incoming governors and historically most of the past governors are male.” But he makes it clear that any dialogue should be about ‘Rotarians’ and not ‘women Rotarians’; because that usage would “make women a subclass. I am not described as a man Rotarian but Heather is called a woman Rotarian. She pays the same dues as me, she does a lot of work for Rotary. So she too should be known as a Rotarian.”

But he concedes, that “we need to still talk about it. All I ask is that we get the right and best qualified people for the job. That’s why I am glad that Jennifer (Jones), who I have known for long, is the president this year and Stephanie (Urchick) will be president the next year. I know they are there because they were the best people available for that job, and not because they are women. And any woman would want that. She wouldn’t want to get the job simply because she was a woman but because she was the best for the job.”

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