He comes from a modest family background; his father was educated only up to the 8th grade, and though born in the US, his parents took him back to Austria at a very young age. John’s father returned to the US, as “a stowaway in a ship, after which he worked with the US Government as a rock mason … it was hard manual work,” reminisces incoming RI President John Germ.
“My parents insisted I needed to go to college, even though they couldn’t afford it. But my father said before going to university, you have to learn a vocation. If you have a vocation, you can get a job, earn a wage, and support your family.”
I lived in a dorm and worked at the cafeteria; that’s how I earned my meals.
We are seated in his office on the 18th floor of the One Rotary Centre, the Rotary Headquarters in Evanston. He is relaxed in a reflective mood and happy to answer my questions, particularly on his humble background.
So the young lad went to a vocational school, took up drafting and “learned to draw … not the artistic type of drawings, but drawings for buildings.” He did this for three hours a day for three years, by working during his spare time and summers to make money which he saved to join as a freshman at the University of Tennessee. He lived in a dorm and worked at the cafeteria; “that’s how I earned my meals. I also worked for a professor because I had drafting experience, and also at a machine shop and thus paid for my college education. Of course my parents helped all they could, but they also had my other two brothers to look after.”
Germ says looking at the other affluent students in his college “didn’t bother me any, because I was as capable as they were, but being from a vocational school I had to take some night courses in english and math, because the aim of a vocational training school is not to prepare you for college.”
But the focus during his formative years was clear — vocation, education, job and family before anything else. “We had a small garden at home and all of us worked on it.”
Thus, he worked his way through college and graduated as a Mechanical Engineer from the University of Tennessee in 1961. Meanwhile, he had met his spouse Judy at the Sunday Church School and married her in 1959.
We’ve got to increase our membership but we’ve got to be more flexible in our organisation.
After graduation, he spent four years in the US Air Force and then joined an engineering company, Campbell and Associates, where he rose to become the head honcho and for whom he still consults. The seeds for his Rotary journey were sown here. “George Campbell, who was a Rotarian himself, encouraged me to join Jaycees first, and there I got heavily involved in doing some community projects.” When he aged out of the Jaycees, Campbell said it was time for him to join Rotary. So he joined RC Chattanooga in 1976 as the second mechanical engineer in the club.
But Germ didn’t really get involved in Rotary work till 1984; in 1983 as the Club Secretary he attended the District conference and slowly got drawn into Rotary activities. Around the same time, in 1985, Rotary got involved in polio work and he became part of the fund-raising campaign. “Rotary first adopted a $120 million campaign and we divided our State and District into smaller regions, and I was in charge of several clubs in the geographic area.”
Of course polio wasn’t a problem in the US. “Interestingly, James Bomar, who did the first polio drops in the Philippines, was from Tennessee. And PRIP James Lacy and Bill Sergeant were also from our District. So I had with me three of the top Rotary leaders working on raising funds for polio, and since they knew about my contacts in different parts of the State while with Jaycees, they asked me to get involved.”
His next milestone came in 1993–94 when he became the President of RC Chattanooga; the District Governor’s post followed quickly in 1996–97. And in 2001 he was nominated RI Director for 2003–05.
Germ says his year as DG was very important. “In our District we visited every club before Christmas, and we had around 60 clubs, a fairly substantial number. So I learned about the clubs and what they were doing for the community.” Also, he was asked to work on a project in RI District 3201, Southern India, where the DG was Vishnudas Lachmandas and “we did polio corrective surgery. They put up $25,000, we raised $25,000, and got a matching grant of $50,000 from TRF. And so it became a $100,000 grant for corrective surgery, pretty big in those days.”
This was his first visit to India; the American DG noticed a big lacuna in this part of India where “they were doing corrective operations but didn’t have a physiotherapist who could teach the beneficiaries how to walk again.”
If we look at a Rotary club and can see only a certain demographic group of individuals, and no diversity, whose fault is it? Our own.
A man of action, Germ identified a woman, “and next year we raised the money, and brought her to the US and trained her as a trainer for other physiotherapists in India.”
That was his first connect to India. “When I was on the RI Board, Sushil Gupta was a Director too and he talked about both polio and water projects and I started meeting Indian leaders.” In 2004–05, RI President Glen Estess sent Germ to a District conference in India as his representative. It coincided with the National Immunisation Day and he also travelled to Bihar and some other areas in North India. His trips to India began as he became more involved in polio, and then he came also for an election issue.
So what are the leadership qualities that have brought him so far in Rotary, and what are the qualities required to be a good Rotary leader, I ask him?
“Good management skills, patience, the ability to motivate and work with people. These are the biggest qualities.”
But then, for the very top post at RI, don’t family and business time and interests have to be sacrificed?
“Well, Rotary is a time-consuming adventure, but it’s also a passion that many of us have to improve the quality of life of others. I go back to my parents who always said you owe something to the community. All of us are very fortunate, we have good health and can take care of our families. As for time, yes, it does take time, but most people can find the time to do what they really want to do … whether it is one or five hours in a week.”
One advantage no other organisation has is that we have people on the ground in over 200 countries.
On his family, particularly their four children being supportive, Germ says, “They come to the Conventions with us, they know about Rotary, they’re not Rotarians but my daughter-in-law is Past President of a Rotary club.”
On his priorities as RI President, Germ says his first priority will be to finish the eradication of polio. “I know there is a lot of complacency, many Rotarians are tired about raising money and who’re saying we don’t have polio in these countries any more, India and Nigeria are polio-free, so let us go to something else. But I don’t think we can go to something else yet. We have to finish the job. If we don’t, it can spread again.”
With the Syria crisis and immense refugee movement “we can easily slip. A few years ago a girl in Tajikistan had infected several people; and the measles transmission in Los Angeles tells you that as long as the virus is alive, it can transmit. So we‘ve got to get rid of it totally.”
His second priority is membership. “We’ve got to increase our membership but we’ve got to be more flexible. We don’t have enough young people because we’re not attractive to young people.” The dues structure is “too high, especially in North America, where in the old system the dues included meals.” So when a member paid his dues, the meals came in too.
Advocating flexibility, the incoming President says that “while we have to maintain our core values and the classification system, there is nothing that says we have to have a meal, or meet at this time and at a restaurant. We’ve got to be flexible on such things. As also attendance.”
We don’t have enough young people and the reason for that is that we’re not attractive to young people.
For instance, when he was Governor, in many clubs, if one didn’t have 80 per cent attendance, “they’d write and say you’re not fulfilling your duty. Some clubs required 100 per cent attendance. Now you’re not going to get this from young people or older people. Having a 100 per cent attendance was not one of my main goals in life.” His goal, when he joined Rotary, was to do service. So the dues structure and other norms have to be rethought. Also, could Rotary have associate members, say in the 25–30 age group? Or, can Rotaractors be involved in both Rotaract and Rotary at the same time, which the RI Constitution doesn’t allow now. “That might have been good at some time but isn’t good enough now, so we need to change it. But are we willing to do this?”
Germ says he has raised these issues both at the Zone Institutes as well as the RI Board and the Council on Legislation has taken them up now. (The COL did adopt some of the changes). “The Board is talking about transformation … yes, we need to transform Rotary.” It also needs to think about those 55-year-old people, whose business or profession prevented them from a deeper engagement with Rotary, now that they have the time and the money. “So we have to think of both ends of the spectrum,” he adds.
What about women members? “Well I don’t think we have to go after just getting women members. The women have to be qualified, as qualified as men, to become Rotarians.”
But aren’t there enough number of qualified women, I prod him. “Yes, and there it’s our own fault. There used to be a cartoon called Pogo which was popular in North America. In that, the alligator, or some animal, looks at the mirror and says we’ve met the enemy and it’s us! Similarly, if we look at a Rotary club and can see only a certain demographic group of individuals, and no diversity, whose fault is it? Our own fault, because we still have the classification principle; and the member has to be sponsored by a Rotarian. So when we say we don’t have enough women, Hispanics, Blacks, or whatever, it is our own fault because we are not inviting them.”
I cook usually two meals a year, and occasionally a breakfast. I cook Thanksgiving dinner, and at Christmas time I usually make the breakfast/brunch for the family.
Germ says that only 25 per cent Rotarians have ever invited others to become Rotarians. “And yet somebody else believed in them and invited them to enter Rotary. But they haven’t fulfilled their obligation to invite others.”
Also, he adds, “We need qualified people who are willing to work, not just numbers so we can say we have 1.3 or 1.4 million members. We need people to engage; and got to attract them to Rotary because of the good work we do.”
Giving the example of India he says India is growing in membership because “you do community projects and people are aware of the work you do; aware of the major role Rotary played in polio eradication from India. With that publicity, and the good work Rotary is doing, people want to join Rotary. You don’t have to tell them what Rotary is and why they should join. They already know what Rotary is.”
The same is happening in Taiwan, he says, adding that in regions where Rotary’s public image has been enhanced, it is doing well.
But on the other hand, even though membership had improved in US last year, “it is still not good enough.” But the financial contribution of Rotarians in the US continues to be robust; “we’re still contributing some 55 or 60 per cent of the TRF money, giving more per capita and are the No 1 country in contributions. You can’t do projects without money and American Rotarians are giving money.”
His next priority is to look at partnerships, expanding on the experience learnt from polio, where Rotary formed great partnerships with WHO, UNICEF, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, etc. “Learning from these partnerships, we have to plan how much more can we do, as there are a lot of advantages in forging partnerships. We’re doing some water projects in Africa, partnering with USAID.”
Germ adds that Rotary should leverage its strength from the fact that “no other organisation has people on the ground in over 200 countries. We have people in just about every community in the world. So we’ve got the contacts, the willingness and the people who can work, and we have to find people with money who are looking for good partners.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
At a glance
Religion: I go to church every time I’m at home. I read the Bible every day and believe in God. My family is religious. And the Bible says “to him much is given, much is expected.” So regardless of which god you believe in, you have that philosophy of service.
Importance of service: I want to see people have a better life. I’ve seen all kinds of poverty in the US and overseas … poverty, lack of education, food and shelter. Those are common denominators and we need to be able to improve other people’s lives.
Music: I like Elvis Presley-like music, the more easy, soothing type of music. I am not into rock and roll or heavy metal.
Reading: I like to read mysteries and thrillers by, say John Grisham, one of my favourite writers. He writes such good books and he has such good stories to tell.
Food: I eat steaks on occasion, and lot of fish. I do not eat heavy, spicy food, so when I go to Thailand, or India or similar places, I have to be careful.
Cooking: I cook usually two meals a year, and occasionally a breakfast. I cook Thanksgiving dinner, and at Christmas time I usually make the breakfast/brunch for the family.
Relax: I could turn on the music or TV and not even watch it, and be doing something else, and feel relaxed!
Movies: Very rarely do I ever go to a movie. No Hollywood favourites … none.
Fitness: I used to walk a lot, gym a lot. And then I got to be an RI Director and TRF Trustee and you have to travel so much, it becomes an excuse, not reason, not to work out! I convince myself that it’s too difficult to take tennis shoes and gym shorts … so now I just walk on the streets.
Hobbies: My hobby is Rotary.