It was five ‘o clock on a sun-kissed May afternoon in the pretty Schleswig-Holstein town of Ratzeburg, 40 minutes’ drive north-east of Hamburg.
Holger Knaack was tending the tidy garden of his home in this picture postcard town which rests on an island surrounded by four lakes; Küchensee, Stadtsee, Domsee and the larger Ratzeburg lake.
“I was in the garden, just looking around, not doing anything special,” recalled Knaack. “I wasn’t expecting anyone to call.”
But the phone did ring with news which was going to change his and wife Susanne’s life forever. News that Knaack, a former baker who once began his working life at the crack of dawn each day, had been elected President of Rotary International for 2020–21.
“It was a total surprise because the announcement was not due until the following day. The call was from Mike McGovern, chairman of the nominating committee. He said ‘I have the honour to tell you that the committee has selected you as the President for 2020–21’.
“It took some moments before I was able to answer Mike. I was speechless and breathless. It was so unexpected. I was not prepared for that call.”
The vacancy to lead the world’s largest humanitarian organisation had only arisen when Sushil Gupta from RC Delhi Midwest decided to step down as President-elect for 2020–21 earlier this year on health grounds.
Gupta would have been India’s fourth RI President, and for Germany’s first ever President, it was a bittersweet moment. Knaack wrote to Gupta admitting that there were “dark clouds in his feelings towards accepting the President’s nomination.”
But Gupta replied by insisting his fellow Rotarian should not worry, enjoy the moment, and wished him all the best. “That makes it easier for me because I have Sushil’s support,” added Knaack.
He has been a member of Rotary for 27 years, belonging to Herzogtum Lauenburg-Mölln Rotary. He was previously a partner and general manager of Knaack Enterprises, a 125-year-old family business, and runs the real estate company, Knaack KG.
He has been married to Susanne for 43 years; the couple has no children and has been heavily involved with the Rotary Youth Exchange programme, receiving 43 students at their home over the years.
There is little doubt that becoming Rotary President is a life-changing moment for Knaack and Susanne. He is both a proud German and a European, and suddenly pencilled-in plans, including a few Rotary trips, have been scuppered.
On his theme, he has a few months yet to think of it and a logo for his Presidential year. But already, two clear themes are emerging. One is a desire to pursue the agenda begun by current RI President Barry Rassin to create more Rotaract clubs to broaden the diversity of Rotary’s membership.
The other is to encourage more young people and women to join the organisation to take up leadership roles.
During his presidency, six women will serve on the Board of Directors. When asked to predict when Rotary International will see its first female President, the German performed a neat, diplomatic side-step.
“That is a great question, and is one I have been asking myself,” answered Knaack. “Bringing more women into Rotary is one of our core values, that is very simple, and we should honour those values.
“The Rotary Board has set us a high goal to increase the number of women in Rotary and in leadership positions to 30 per cent by June 2023. But if we want to achieve something, then we have to set ourselves high goals.
“What I would say is that it is the duty of the nominating committee to choose the best. I don’t know who is going to go for President the year after me or who will be on the nominating committee.
“I don’t know who will be my successor, but I am happy with whoever they are. My successor is selected in a democratic way, so it would be unfair to suggest it would be good if my successor was a woman.”
He added: “I am honoured to have the confidence and support of Rotary’s 1.2 million members. As President, I plan to highlight the best Rotary has to offer where people of all backgrounds can see themselves reflected in our service and impact.”
“I am excited, of course, to be Rotary President. Without my wife Susanne, nothing would work, and you could not do this job. But we are both looking forward to the moment, and we are full of energy for the task ahead.”
The author is Editor of Rotary, Great Britain and Ireland.