RC Colombo turns 90, with an elegant birthday bash

RI President Barry Rassin and Esther with PRIP K R Ravindran and Sri Lanka’s former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

As RI President Barry ­Rassin raised a toast to celebrate the 90th ­birthday of Rotary Club of Colombo, D 3220, at a grand and elegant banquet held at Hotel Hilton Colombo, he began his address recounting some of the great ­humanitarian projects done by this heritage club.

“In 1948, you put together an association to prevent tuberculosis. Imagine, way back in 1948 you said: ‘We can help to rid this country of this disease.’ In 1987 you started an anti-narcotic association and waged a war against drugs. You partnered with Rotarians from Japan to get 2,000 intensive care beds to ­hospitals across the country. I am from the healthcare industry and know how much a hospital bed costs and how much a good bed helps in the patient’s recovery.”

Getting a CAT scan for a hospital, rebuilding a modern maternity hospital destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, which had since then delivered 140,000 babies, and now launching projects to get the country rid of cervical cancer and a pilot to eliminate dengue from Colombo, were all projects that “are transforming your country.”

He was amazed to see DG Dushan Soza’s enthusiasm with the distribution of mosquito traps to eliminate dengue at its source and would be keenly watching the project’s success as many other countries with a similar or worse dengue problem could benefit from its replication.


Making dreams come true

“Nobody dreams like Rotarians but we… you actually… make them come true. There is an expression in Africa that if you pick up a rock, you touch the past, when you pick up a flower, you touch the present, when you touch a life, you change a future. Think of how many lives you’ve touched and how many futures you’ve changed… hundreds and thousands of people have better lives because of RC Colombo. They don’t know how and what you are planning next. On behalf of them, I am here to say ‘thank you’.”

Imagine, two toilets for 1,000 children, but that 11-year-old in Malawi appreciated that they at least had that, and that Rotary put them there. He thanked me and I pass on his thanks to you for all that you do.
— RI President Barry Rassin

Striking a reflective note, Rassin said that for 113 years Rotarians across the world had done small and big projects. But it needed to now plan for the next 100 years. While Rotary had done the Herculean task of bringing down the number of polio cases from 350,000 a year in the 1980s to only 18 so far this year, “it’s still 18 children. We’re not finished yet and have to fulfill the promise we made to the children of the world in 1985. We’ve got to stay the course and continue to immunise 250 million children every year. We can’t take our eyes off the goal.”


Dimensions of his theme logo

But while that remained Rotary’s No 1 priority, planning for the future was another major one. Explaining the various parameters that had gone into his theme Be an inspiration, the logo of which was designed by his wife Esther, who had captured the magical colours of the Bahamas’ beaches, waters and sunsets, which she felt represent joy and happiness, Rassin said the theme logo had a wave. “A wave is a force of nature, and Rotary is just that; a force out to make a positive change. Under the wave is a heart and that denotes that Rotary has a heart, and then there is a sail, which sets the direction. So the logo says we are a force of nature with a heart that has direction to make our world a better place. But that direction comes from you… every Rotary club in the world.”

PRIP K R Ravindran, RI President Barry Rassin and Mayor of Colombo Rosy Senanayake.
PRIP K R Ravindran, RI President Barry Rassin and Mayor of Colombo Rosy Senanayake.

Their task and challenge would be to make Rotary relevant for the young and women as well, and to ensure that the less than four per cent conversion rate of Rotaractors into Rotary made a dramatic improvement. “We have to ask if my Rotary club is knocking on the doors of my community and saying I want to be part of what you’re doing? If it isn’t, what do we have to do differently so that we can truly be the organisation that people want to join?”

Rassin added, “In some countries, I won’t mention names, the average age of Rotary is 70! That scares me; we need to bring younger people into our clubs to reduce our average age. And we can do that by being attractive and relevant to younger people and giving them value. If we offer that value, we won’t have people dropping out”, as 150,000 members had done last year.

One way of giving value to the young was by giving them personal leadership skills. Saying that he had got his “leadership skills from Rotary and not an MBA, Rassin recalled how the first time he was asked to deliver a speech by his club he couldn’t get to turn the first page. “But my club said that’s okay, do it again! And again! And I kept doing it until today I can stand before you and make a speech. Every Rotarian should have that same opportunity.”

When I consider the ways in which my life would be different today if I did not join this Rotary club, I realise how much poorer I would be; not in money, but in affection, respect, achievement, friends, and everything that is worthy and worthwhile.
— Past RI President K R Ravindran

To help the young develop leadership skills, Rotary had tied up with Toastmasters International to design leadership programmes with content from Rotary, and this would be first launched for Rotaractors.

Rassin ended his speech with a story from the couple’s recent visit to a school in Malawi which had 1,000 students and only 38 teachers. “Visiting that school I suddenly realised I had lost Esther, which I often do!” He finally found her in one of the rooms, amidst “200 children. There were no tables and chairs and yet the children were still happy that they could at least get an education. A youngster, 11 or 12, comes up to me, points to my Rotary pin and says I know that people in local Rotary clubs put a well, so that we had water to drink. And then they built two toilets, so that we have toilets to use.

Imagine, two toilets for 1,000 children, but he appreciated that they at least had that, and that Rotary put them there. He said I also know they didn’t do it by themselves, they had help from people in other countries. I know I am never going to see any of them. But can you please tell them thanks from me?”

RI President Barry Rassin, PRIP K R Ravindran and PDG Krish Rajendran with senior members of RC Colombo and District 3220.
RI President Barry Rassin, PRIP K R Ravindran and PDG Krish Rajendran with senior members of RC Colombo and District 3220.

An emotionally charged Rassin added: “On behalf of that 11-year-old… I don’t know his name… I thank you for everything you do for all those children out there. They’ll never see you and you’ll never see them… whose lives you’ve touched and changed, the women you’ve provided education to so that they could educate their families, the thousands you provided sanitation to, the entrepreneurs you equipped with micro credit… All these things you do add to our basic mission, which is to bring in world peace and understanding. For all this, I thank you.”


Nostalgic note

Striking a nostalgic note on his 42-year-old association with RC Colombo, Past RI President K R Ravindran responding to the toast to his club by the President, recalled as a 24-year-old walking in for his first club meeting with his proposer, when the President W Crossette-Thambiah, Vice Chairman of the Swiss group A Baur & Co, “introduced me, to my horror, to the guest speaker.”

Now only the previous day, while he was with his wife and a group of friends at the pub, in the Oberoi Hotel, the singer they had requested to sing the famous Hebrew song Hava Nageela, made popular by Harry Belafonte, initially turned down the request, pointing to a gentleman seated across the room, saying: “He is the Representative for Palestine.”

“Nonetheless, we compelled him to sing that song. The other guest who complained stared at me, and promptly walked out! The Representative for Palestine was now the guest speaker at our club where I was going to be inducted as a new member.” To add to Ravindran’s discomfort, the President sent him a chit during the meeting asking him to propose the vote of thanks!

In some countries, I won’t mention names, the average age of Rotary is 70! That scares me; we need to bring younger people into our clubs to reduce our average age.
— RI President Barry Rassin

“I could have gone through the floor. And that was the first ever speech (if you could call that stammering effort a speech) I made in my life!”

But he never looked back, and when he considered the ways “in which my life would be different today if I did not join this Rotary club, I realise how much poorer I would be; not in money perhaps, but in affection, in respect, in achievement, in friends, in everything that is worthy and worthwhile. I might, of course have had a larger bank account, but I would still be a smaller person” without the club “which has become an extended family for many of us”.

Ravindran regaled the audience with juicy titbits on his club’s history. Such as a clever classification maneuvering done by the then ­Classification Committee Chairman Rev ­Nathanielsz. A member wanted to propose the Bishop of Colombo to the club, but the problem was that the committee chairman himself held the ‘Religion’ classification. “So he gave himself the classification ‘Religion – Retail’ and the Bishop the classification ‘Religion – Wholesale’!


Quality membership and projects

The quality and high profile of the club’s membership could be gauged from the fact that several trunk roads in Colombo bear the names of its members — Sir James Pieris, Sir Mohamed Macan Markar, Sir Markus Fernando, Sir Baron ­Jayatilleke, Sir Chittampalam ­Gardiner, etc, ­Ravindran added.

From L: TRF Trustee Mike Webb, Alison Webb, PDG Gowri Rajan, D 3220 DG Dushan Soza, Event Co-chair Nithi Murugesu and Manorie Soza.
From L: TRF Trustee Mike Webb, Alison Webb, PDG Gowri Rajan, D 3220 DG Dushan Soza, Event Co-chair Nithi Murugesu and Manorie Soza.

Over the years, their club had carved a niche for itself in the Rotary world for “the quality and calibre of the humanitarian projects we do which in monetary terms run into millions of rupees, and have made a tangible difference to this country over the years, touching the lives of thousands of people.”

Some of these were:

  • The 45 houses rebuilt in the cyclone-devastated Mannar district
  • Supporting the formation of the Ceylon Cancer Society
  • Setting up a national organisation to combat tuberculosis and helping control of the disease.
  • Setting up SLANA — the foremost anti-narcotics agency in Sri Lanka
  • Constructing an OP ward for the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital
  • Gifting kidney dialysis machines for the general hospital
  • Equipping every government hospital, including the Army hospital, with motorised beds for their ICUs
  • Rebuilding a complete maternity hospital in the South after the 2004 tsunami
  • Setting up the early cancer detection centre which had already screened approximately 40,000 women.
  • Its latest work in progress is to eliminate the incidence of cervical cancer in Sri Lanka in a bid to become one of the first ­countries in the world to achieve this feat.

Through such projects, in the last 90 years, Ravindran added, “we have shown that Rotary is a place where people go, not to make their living, but to make their contributions.”


Dengue pilot launched

Addresing the meet, DG Dushan Soza said he had seen “Rotary change over the years; the fact this club has lived on for 90 years is a credit to all our leaders.”

He then gave details of the dengue pilot that was launched the same morning in the office of the Mayor of Colombo, Rosy Senanayake, with President Rassin inaugurating the project. “This morning we have signed an MoU with the Health Ministry as we need to eliminate the source of dengue at the larva stage through mosquito trapping equipment. And we can’t walk into people’s homes, without the government as our partner, to set up those traps.”

Another important programme the district was doing was a series of leadership seminars in collaboration with Toastmasters International to discover emerging leaders throughout the country.

TRF Trustee Mike Webb and ­Alison participated in the celebrations where several Rotarians, including Ravindran and Cabinet Minister PDG Swaminathan, who have completed 40 years in RC Colombo, were honoured.

Past President Ruzly Hussain who was Secretary of the club in its 50th year when RI President Clem Renouf visited them chaired the meeting.

RC Colombo President Kumudu Warnakulasuriya thanked the participants, particularly Co-chair of the event Rtn Nithi Murugesu.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

History of Rotary in South Asia

Vanathy and PRIP K R Ravindran.
Vanathy and PRIP K R Ravindran.

Even as Rotary Club of Colombo celebrated its 90th birthday at a glittering event where RI President Barry Rassin raised a toast to the wonderful projects done by this vintage and illustrious club, and where former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga made an appearance, PRIP K R Ravindran educated the audience on the history of Rotary in Asia.

Thanks to the “venerable gentleman from Canada, James Wheeler Davidson of the Rotary Club of Calgary, who was charged with the responsibility of spreading the message of Rotary in the Asia Pacific region,” Rotary had blossomed into its present position in the continent.

Davidson, an Arctic explorer and a journalist, was a Director and Vice President of RI and was given the assignment of extending Rotary in the Pacific, Asia and Far East with a modest budget of $8,000 from RI. But he spent $25,000 of his own funds. Rotary had already entered Asia via the Manila Club (which was shut down and then restarted), Shanghai (also shut down) and Calcutta clubs in 1919; Tokyo in 1921 and Seoul in 1927. But it had never spread beyond Calcutta for almost 10 years.

Then between 1928 and 1931 Davidson started Rotary clubs all over Asia; Seramban and Kuala ­Lumpur in Malaysia; Colombo; Madras and Karachi in 1929. RC Colombo of Ceylon was part of District 89, which extended up to Afghanistan and Burma.

At the inaugural meeting of RC Colombo held at the iconic Galle Face Hotel, Col T Y Wright was elected President, amidst a ­distinguished gathering of Colombo society, including the Governor General of Ceylon ­Herbert Stanley representing King George V, and the Commander of the 7th Fleet, Admiral Thesigar.
“The standard for the quality of membership was set that day; not too long ago potential members had to wait three years to be admitted as there was no classifications available.” Of the 64 charter members of the club, only eight were Ceylonese and the rest were all Englishmen.

A close friendship

RI President Barry Rassin
RI President Barry Rassin

The rapport, bonhomie and mutual respect that RI President Barry Rassin and Past President K R Ravindran share came to the fore at the grand 90th birthday bash of RC Colombo.

Beginning his address ­Ravindran quipped, “Barry and I have worked very closely when I was RI President; he would clean up the problems I created and my success as President was to a large extent because of the support I had from Barry! And Mike (TRF Trustee Mike Webb, who spoke before him) was so right. Esther is the wind beneath his wings.”

Ravindran then went on to describe the nuances and different shades of Rassin deciphering the various moods and the approval barometer of his wife Esther thus: “When Esther says ‘Honey, Darling, or Love’, Barry knows he is on the right track. When Esther says ‘Barry’, the President knows I better watch out. But when Esther says ‘Rassin’, he knows he is in trouble. She is absolutely wonderful!”

Rassin, in his address, said, “In my humble opinion, Ravi and Vanathy were the best first couple this organisation has had. It was a great learning experience to spend time with them and understand leadership.”

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