He lifted Rotary to Himalayan heights

PRIP Rajendra Saboo with PRIP Cliff Dochterman.
PRIP Rajendra Saboo with PRIP Cliff Dochterman.

I met Cliff Dochterman in May 1979 at the Rotary International Assembly. This was the beginning of a long, long journey of friendship. He was district governor in 1968–69 and I became one in 1976–77. But he never talked of his seniority and we moved closely in our Rotary service. I was RI director in 1981–83 and RI President in 1991–92. He followed directorship in 1983–85 and presidency in 1992–93. I respected him as a person who personified wit and wisdom.

Cliff was an educationist, who went on to become executive ­vice-president of the University of Pacific. The president of the University was Stan ­McCaffrey who became RI President, in the first year of my directorship. He brought Cliff into Rotary leadership as chairman of the New Horizons Committee. Following successful polio vaccination in the Philippines, the committee recommended to the RI directors that the whole world’s children be vaccinated by Rotary’s centenary in 2005. The board had taken the effective forward step. 3-H (Health, Hunger and ­Humanity) was a corporate programme which was vehemently opposed by some past top leaders at the 1983 Council on ­Legislation. I was on the board and Cliff was director-elect. He was authorised to defend the board’s action. The opposition was defeated thunderously.

Usha and I became close friends of Cliff and his wife Dorothy in 1979 at Boca Raton and at all international events we were together. Dorothy always made people happy and Cliff did so even more. She suffered cancer which took her life in 1987. Cliff confided in me that Dorothy’s one wish which would not be realised was Cliff becoming RI President. He added that when God meets Dorothy, he would ask what did you do in the world, and she would reply that she made people happy. When Cliff was nominated as RI president I told him that happiness will be in his theme and so it was. His theme was “Real happiness is helping others”.

When I was RI president-elect, Cliff got nominated as RI president to be my successor and I was overjoyed knowing that on my board Cliff would bring the fountain of wisdom. Cliff put his name at the last minute as he was rejected for senior positions at RI. He was nominated overwhelmingly despite his having lost his wife. His daughter Claudia was his companion when and where required. Many times he travelled alone. I wanted to get Cliff to our institute which was at Agra. Unfortunately, he could not make it due to sudden surgery required by an infected gallbladder. However, he did come to India next year as president and principally to Bangalore, home of RI director Panduranga Setty and Cliff made him chair of Executive Committee of the board. He came to India as chair of TRF and significantly he visited the CoL in Delhi in 1998. Cliff came to India two or three times, once for the institute and once for a polio eradication event when he became TRF chair. By then Mary Elena, who he married in 1994, became his life partner.

Cliff had joined RC Berkeley in 1958 and then shifted to RC Stockton in 1971. Finally he joined RC Moraga and remained there until the end. Mary Elena also joined RC ­Moraga and became its president.

Even in board meetings Cliff would support me and we would resolve any sensitive issues between us.

Cliff deeply appreciated my putting him on the International Assembly of 1992 and he gave one-third of discussion leaders, which I did not have. That was the beginning of the process that remains till now… the IA is fully under the control of the incoming RI president. Even in board meetings he would support me and we would resolve any sensitive issues between us. One issue, an administrative one, was that I felt the secretary of the president-elect should move with him when he became president. This is how it is done now. However, Ann Fleming, who was very talented, was my secretary as president-elect, but was not willing to continue as my secretary when I became the president. She approached Cliff saying so, and he approached me and I agreed. He could have done so on his own but he considered it a protocol and did not want to offend me.

Around March-April 1995 Luis Giay was RI president-elect and I was trustee chair-elect. To introduce a new programme to commemorate Paul ­Harris’s 50th death anniversary, I came up with the idea of advanced education for peace and resolution of conflicts. Luis agreed and I put the proposal before the April trustee meeting, courtesy of then TRF chair Paulo Costa. I got the approval to go ahead and the next meeting, when I would be chair, I could take the final decision. On advice of PRIP Bill Skeleton I created the committee to be chaired by Cliff and two other Rotary leaders, who were educationists. Cliff could take it up well and at the next meeting of the trustees it was approved and endorsed by RI President Giay and his board. The programme was announced at the Glasgow Convention and at a sub-group meeting attended by almost 400 Rotarians chaired by Cliff. It got affirmative response. Thereafter, Cliff, I and Luis took the programme further.

Cliff brought out a booklet ABCs of Rotary. It became most popular and every new Rotarian or potential Rotary member would get this book. Cliff was an author having written many books or prompted the books. He had a vision and also did hands-on service as he used to go to Mexico or Panama as a volunteer. He was an ardent scout, and knew all about the discipline of scouts. He was also a person of tremendous thinking, humourous and quick-witted. I remember when he was in the Melbourne convention as president there was a choir of about 150 young students under 12. The electricity failed for a few minutes and by the time it came back, Cliff’s spontaneous remark was “Oh now they have all grown up”.

Cliff had many stories in his speeches and some of them were very funny. I mentioned to Cliff that those who are listening your speeches, are taking notes and he told me: “Raja, they were not thinking of the message of my speech but they were only noting the jokes I have in my presentation.” He had that sensitivity. He was born a person with wit and he inherited it from his mother. His mother used to be on the television advertisements of ­Kellogg’s and she had to eat the cereal. I met Cliff’s mother and complimented her that she gave the skill of humour to Cliff and appreciated the TV advertisement. She chuckled and said that she had to eat the cereal several times if the rehearsal was not correct.

I’ve complimented Cliff about his outstanding addresses and orientation, and many times mentioned about his being an orator of a special level. And he responded that I was also a good speaker. He was humble and he always would think of respecting the other person. His masterpiece on leadership is as a conductor of the orchestra. This became a repeated programme at the International Assemblies and the incoming district governors would give Cliff a standing ovation before he started this presentation and of course after he completed it.

Usha and I became very close to Mary Elena and Cliff. Mary Elena became part and parcel of Cliff and his personality including knowledge of Rotary.

As the years rolled by, Cliff had a problem and could not stand for too long, and when Mary Elena passed away from cancer, the double jeopardy broke Cliff. He always avoided coming to International Assembly after that. The last one I remember is the 2018 IA.

We corresponded frequently and Cliff talked about the passing away of Mat Caparas, Frank Devlyn and Luis Giay. And when he passed away on Nov 23, I felt that he was a person who lived his life to the full. He was an author, orator, philosopher, visionary and indeed with his talent he lifted Rotary to Himalayan heights.

The writer is past RI president


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