Luis, the trailblazer

From L: Past RI Presidents Luis Giay, Rajendra Saboo, K R Ravindran and Frank Devlyn.
From L: Past RI Presidents Luis Giay, Rajendra Saboo, K R Ravindran and Frank Devlyn.

Luis Vicente Giay had unparalleled vision, unquestionable integrity and unsurpassed intellectual gravitas. His professionalism and simplicity made him an exceptional leader of this pioneer service organisation — Rotary.  He could see far and he knew that all the beautiful sentiments weighed less than a single lovely action. A man of vision and action, he was a grassroot Rotarian who was concerned about the future.

I met Luis in Monte Carlo in 1983 when he was a CoL delegate, and I, an RI director. Usha and I became instant friends with Celia and Luis. We would tease them as “love birds” as they were so youthful regardless of their age. Luis, who became a governor in 1974, was senior to me by two years. He was group discussion leader (now training leader) for three years — 1981–83. I had that responsibility two years earlier. When we met in 1983, we made up for the lost time in our Rotary journey.

In 1990-91, Luis was aide to President Paulo Costa and I was RI president-elect. Both Paulo and I were very close friends but had some sensitive issues which we resolved with the help of Luis and my aide, past RI vice-president George Arceanaux.

As RI president I visited Argentina and Luis organised my three-day visit and was my local aide. We reached the Argentinian President Carlos Menem’s office for a courtesy call. On the time allotted to us, his secretary said: Normally 15 minutes but if he asks for coffee in 10 minutes, then it will be his call.  Argentina had a cholera epidemic then, and after the initial courtesy words, I told the president that India suffers the spread of cholera every year but is able to control it. If he desired, I could organise the visit of some experts from India to Argentina within a week. They could stay for four weeks and along with local doctors, plan how to control the epidemic.

The president immediately called for coffee and his health minister, and spent almost an hour with us. I managed to send three specialty doctors and a public health expert from India within a week, and with Luis as the national coordinator, the project succeeded. It was a memorable experience.

The climax came with Luis as RI president-elect in 1995–96 and I, the trustee chair-elect. Luis said, “Raja, next year is Paul Harris’s 50th anniversary. What can we do to commemorate the occasion with a lasting programme?”  I said Rotary had done almost every worthwhile programme and wondered what new could be done. But Luis was very persuasive and I said: “We will think”.  I thought of a Paul Harris Centre for International Studies in Peace, and gave the blue print of the idea. Luis was thrilled but being a practical leader, said it would be a massive programme. Could RI or TRF handle it? By 1996–97, at the Glasgow Convention, Luis and I jointly announced the programme, now known as the Rotary Peace Centres, a flagship programme of the Foundation.

Towards the end of 1995–96, the RI board had decided to shift the trustee chair’s office to the 17th floor of One Rotary Center, and the trustees threatened to shift the complete Foundation to another location. Again Luis and my personal relationship helped.We had a two-day retreat for the RI ­president, two incoming presidents, the TRF trustee chair, and the next two incoming chairs at a hotel in the O’Hare area. That dissipated the stress, anger and other negative reactions. An action plan was evolved to sustain harmony between the RI board and the TRF trustees.
I understand that this concept of a retreat is still prevalent.

Our trip together in August 1996 to South Africa to launch the Kick polio out of Africa campaign, inaugurated by President Nelson Mandela, was significant and crucial. About 30 of us met with President Mandela, but the security people wouldn’t allow our going near him to shake hands with him. As the meeting ended, I sought the president’s permission to allow RI President Luis Giay to pin the Rotary End Polio button on him. The president couldn’t say No, and in the evening we even danced with President Mandela!  This was a highlight of the year.

Luis visited India many times, coming to Chandigarh from Jan 25–28, 2001, as the RI President’s Rep. On Jan 26, India’s Republic Day, the killer, unprecedented earthquake hit Gujarat. As our district, under governor Ranjit Bhatia, collected money and material for the disaster victims, Celia and Luis were the first to donate generously.

We have been together on various occasions… at the Peace Centre symposiums, international conventions and assemblies, and always spent time together. Meanwhile Celia came up the Rotary hierarchy and this wonderful couple won Usha and my hearts totally.

A part of that heart has gone. We miss him. The man who had his whole family in Rotary, who lifted Rotary’s name by becoming Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of his country Argentina, who bridged generations in Rotary, will be missed by Rotary.

Luis Giay was not a torchbearer to show the path ahead. He was the torch himself, and has left a blazing trail.

The writer is a past RI president.

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