Money was never my priority

He joined Rotary at 26, and how, is an interesting story. TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel was a young executive with the YMCA in Culver City in California, “and if you are in an executive position, you are a big contender for Rotary.” As he turned 26, most of the service clubs in the city wanted him as a member, but he chose to join Rotary.

Vasanthi Theenachandran welcomaes TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel with a bouquet at the KL Zone Institute.
Vasanthi Theenachandran welcomaes TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel with a bouquet at the KL Zone Institute.

And this because, after visiting all the other service clubs who had invited him to join, he found the key business and other leaders and decision makers of the community were in Rotary! Also, a number of members of the YMCA Board were also in Rotary. “So it was an easy decision. But Rotary also had the four-way test which is so close to the YMCA’s values, and where also the focus was on vocation and service to the community,” he says.

The Trustee Chair’s story is a bit unusual…right from a young age, he wanted to go into non-profit. But why, I ask him, as we chat at the Kuala Lumpur Zone Institute. “Because as a boy I grew up with the YMCA, attending their summer camp every year. And when I was in high school, the YMCA asked me if I would work part time with them.” He agreed; and soon the professional staff there said he should consider working for the organisation full time and make that his career path. He agreed and they recommended he go to a particular school in Chicago which specialised in training non-profit professionals.

You can’t belong truly to any organisation unless you do something for it, because I believe that is the price of admission to that organisation… to be active in it.

Interestingly, his wife Diane had a similar experience with the YMCA in Pittsburgh. She too came to the same school and they met here.

Part of the deal in studying there was working part time for a non-profit organisation. “I worked for two years with a Polish Puerto Rican community that was divided by a street called the Division Street on the northside of Chicago. And the YMCA there was bang in the middle, like a safe harbour! Both the communities were always at a war but when they came to the YMCA, it was a safe, neutral place. This experience greatly helped to frame my outlook and desire to work with people in need.”

Even before graduation, Paul and Diane got married in Chicago in 1963. After graduation he worked for the YMCA in Los Angeles and eventually became its youngest executive director. He was all of 25!

From L: RI President Ian Riseley, RI Director C Basker, TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel and RI Director John C Matthews.
From L: RI President Ian Riseley, RI Director C Basker, TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel and RI Director John C Matthews.

Later, when he became the executive vice president of the YMCA, he had to move to Los Angeles which is among the largest YMCAs in the world. Here he joined the Rotary Club of Los Angeles, the fifth oldest and among the largest Rotary clubs in the world.

Netzel’s entire career has been in non-profit; it is very unusual for a youngster not to dream of success and making money. So how come he was focussed on non-profit, I press on. His response: “But I was so young and had so much to learn. And making money was never my goal. Rotary took me from being a young kid to an adult and my goal always was what is Rotary’s basic philosophy — use your vocation to serve others,” he smiles.

In 1985, he started Netzel Grigsby Associates Inc, a leading management consulting firm that specialises in working with non-profit organisations and institutions in western US. He started it not to make more money… “that was never my priority but because I thought I could provide more service. The objective was to be considered the most ethical and most successful firm of our type in the western US.”

One reason the energy levels are so high in Indian Rotarians is because they are living international projects in their own backyards.

But Diane and he continued to live in Culver City where their son and daughter were born and raised. He was asked by many to run for the board of education in Culver City, “which in the 1970s had top educational systems in California. Did you know”, he asks in an animated tone, “that till 1972 more motion pictures were filmed out of Culver City than the rest of the world? Until of course Bollywood kicked in,” he jokes. “And Gone with the Wind was filmed almost entirely in Culver City. So Atlanta burned in Culver City! And Wizard of Oz was filmed here too! So it has a long, rich history and till today is an important city.”

He was elected to the Board of Education, served there for four years and had decided to seek a re-election when he was asked to run for the city council and was elected Mayor for two terms.

Interestingly, Netzel was asked by many to stay in politics and “run for the Congress but I never ever had any interest in politics,” he says emphatically, adding, “my mission always was service. I believed, and continue to believe till date, that we have a very strong responsibility… no matter what country, to serve our communities and make a difference. I believe we have a responsibility to give back and the beauty of it is that you don’t have to aspire for a higher office to do so.”

TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel addressing the International Assembly.
TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel addressing the International Assembly.

Netzel adds that in Rotary too he has never really sought a position such as becoming the president of RC Los Angeles.” His staunch belief is that one can never “belong truly to any organisation unless you do something for it, because I believe that is the price of admission to that organisation. So I said I am going to spend some time serving my community. All the time Rotary was my number one priority.”

On the million-dollar question what next after polio Netzel recalls that at the 2007 Salt Lake City Convention, the senior Bill Gates, a Rotarian from Seattle, and Chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said “when the time comes for you to look at what after polio, think big and bold because by then you will have unlimited potential in terms of what you can do, thanks to what you have already accomplished. So we are looking at it, and as we get close the 36-month deadline when the world is certified polio-free after the last case of polio is detected, we will be much more engaged with Rotarians around the world who will give us ideas and inputs.

Rotary and India

At the KL Institute Netzel mentioned more than once that every visit to India leaves him excited and enthused. So what is so special about India? And how important is it to the Rotary world?

“I think it is critically important. Number one, it is the energy that Indian Rotarians provide. To explain the second factor, he recalls his first visit to India in November 1997 as DG “on a polio corrective surgery project to Mumbai and Pune. And the Indian Rotarians left me with a few strong impressions. I found their energy levels are so high because they are living international projects in their own backyards. There were so many places that I visited where if it weren’t for the Rotarians in that community, the vocational training programmes, schools and health care, blood banks, you name it… those services wouldn’t have been provided. And it was the same when I visited India (Chennai) in 2007 and it is no different today.”

Gone with the Wind was filmed almost entirely in Culver City. So Atlanta burned in Culver City! And Wizard of Oz was filmed here too.

The polio corrective surgery was done through a 4-year 3H Grant of $250,000, in which his district was a partner. “The reason I was there was to show Indian Rotarians that we will not just send money, we want to come, participate and see first-hand what’s going on and help you in whatever way we can.”

He was touched and impressed when the Indian Rotarians asked him “what can we do to repay you in your area. We’re sure you have your needs too.” So over time, and past his governorship, they did some more projects.

Did he ever think India could be the second largest giver to TRF?

“First of all, I wasn’t really in the queue to think from that perspective until I became a Director in 2007–09; Ashok Mahajan was RID with me.” It was only then that he got a better global understanding of TRF; this time he returned with Diane and India unravelled another facet of Rotary for him. And this time it was an ugly one.

“Membership development was a major priority then and we were encountering lots of politics in the contests and elections were being challenged, and the challenges were getting to be almost of an epidemic proportion so the RI Board had to take some action and get control on that issue.”

But even then, his “belief was that India will be, one day, one of the top Rotary countries in the world. Because it was so evident by the commitment and dedication we had seen.”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and Rtn Sridhar Bharathy

2 comments on “Money was never my priority

  • Feb 04 2018 at 12:01 pm
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    Excellent article and it’s always great to get the inside story of a great humanitarian. Paul and his lovely wife are amazing people.

    • Rotary Club : Eclub of Southern Africa D9400
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  • Feb 04 2018 at 12:39 pm
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    Super. He is a very good Rotarian.

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