Rotarians bid a teary farewell to Frank Devlyn

After Past RI President Frank Devlyn succumbed to pancreatic cancer on May 27 at the age of 81, tributes poured in from across the Rotary world. As P K Acharya, who is so active on social media, quickly formed a Whatsapp tribute group, it kept buzzing for at least a few days, with a fond memory/tribute coming in every couple of minutes on the first day. And they continued to pour in on several days thereafter.

Frank Devlyn with past RI Presidents K R Ravindran (centre) and Luis Giay.
Frank Devlyn with past RI Presidents K R Ravindran (centre) and Luis Giay.

While I requested past RI Presidents Rajendra Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee to pen their memories of the departed soul, one of the most informative tributes came from PRIP Ray Klinginsmith, courtesy PRIP K R Ravindran who shared it with me.

It unearthed an interesting nugget for me; Devlyn had been Editor of the Mexico Rotary regional magazine, and that assignment did cause a few tense moments for him when he was elected to serve as the RI Director for 1984–85. Writing about “an incident that almost altered his ascendency in Rotary,” Klinginsmith recalls, “When I attended my first RI Board meeting as a back bencher in May1985, the big news was a formal approval of the three-year fundraising campaign for PolioPlus with a goal of $120 million! It was a tremendous first step in the PolioPlus programme. The Board had worked on it all year, and it passed by a unanimous vote.”

The exciting part of the meeting was that Frank Devlyn had won the 1984–85 election to serve as a RI director, and his opponent filed a complaint. When the matter came to the full board, someone suggested that Frank be summoned for an interview to clarify what he had done and not done. “So Frank was called in Mexico City, and the next morning he was present for his interview. The board then decided that he had not violated the campaigning rules, and Frank took office as a director on July 1, 1986. It was a close call in his Rotary career!”

This later resulted in the appointment of a committee to clarify and improve the bylaws provisions on campaigning. The committee was chaired by Chuck Keller, and the other two members were two PDG lawyers; “I was the director liaison of this committee, and the work of the committee was the best I have ever observed. It clarified the campaigning rules so effectively, that the proposed bylaws amendment was quickly approved by the 1986 CoL. And these rules have not needed amendment for almost 35 years! So Frank helped to shape Rotary by impacting and improving the rules on campaigning, canvassing, and electioneering!”

Frank was larger than life and one of the few past presidents taller than me. He will be missed for his physical presence as well as his uplifting personality.
– PRIP K R Ravindran

In his tribute, RI President Mark Maloney said: “Frank was an impactful leader in Rotary whose warm greetings, inspirational words, and dedication to service left a lasting impression on those who met him.”

Early years

From selling US confectionery in his neighbourhood as an eight-year-old, when he would cross from his hometown on the northern border of Mexico, into El Paso, Texas, to buy chocolate bars such as Mars and Snickers, he grew into a successful founder of an optical empire. Devlyn has provided free glasses to one million Mexicans without access to eye care through the Devlyn Foundation.

Rotarians worldwide fondly remember him as a warm, friendly and compassionate human being with an undying passion for Rotary. Devlyn is survived by his wife, Gloria Rita and three daughters — Melanie, Stephanie and Jennifer.

Recalling his last meet with Devlyn, RIPN Shekhar Mehta said his passing away was a great “loss to Rotary, and to Rashi and me, who have shared some wonderful moments with Frank and Gloria Rita, the last ones being on each day of the IA at San Diego this January. He would find and greet us, unless we had already done the same to him. He came twice to my office to meet me at the IA to discuss some plans for Mexico.”

He also recalled “fond memories of his visit to our district when I was DG or to my home when he was TRF Trustee Chair, and my visit to his home and the Frank Museum in Mexico.

What a friendly man he was. We will miss him just as the Rotary world will.”

Paying his tribute, PRIP K R Ravindran says: “Frank was larger than life and one of the few past presidents taller than me, with his crushing hug and ‘Buenos Dias, Amigo’ greeting. He will be missed for his physical presence as well as his uplifting personality. He was a giant of a businessman. Today the Devlyn Optical Group, of which he was the CEO, has over 700 stores in South America and Europe. When I once told Frank that his was likely to be the largest in the world, he quickly corrected me and said “second largest in the world.”

Devlyn with RIPN Shekhar Mehta and Rashi (left).
Devlyn with RIPN Shekhar Mehta and Rashi (left).

Remembering his penchant for collecting visiting cards, he adds, “He collected them and gave out his own cards with gay abandon. He must have a collection of millions of cards because I must have given him 20 myself! He and Luis Giay (past RI President from Argentina) always debated about who had attended the maximum number of conventions. Probably Frank. He had done 45 consecutive ones before Hamburg.”

Bidding adieu to the departed leader Ravindran adds, “Dear Frank, may a thousand angels lull you to your eternal sleep.”

Describing Devlyn as a “friendly, warm and compassionate human being,” TRF Trustee Gulam Vahanvaty recalls that he got to know him well “when he was TRF Chair and I was an RRFC. Always willing to assist, he and Gloria Rita were a very popular couple. I met him last at the IA just a few months ago and he was his same friendly, warm self. Rotary has lost an outstanding leader. In this time of grief, we pray that Gloria Rita and his family bear this irreparable loss with fortitude.”

RIDN A S Venkatesh says in the last 20 years, Devlyn would “probably have been the first person one met as DGE when one went to the IA. A friendly person with an infectious smile, he had the skill of making others feel comfortable. Rotary world will miss this towering personality.”

PRID C Basker who was district governor of RID 3000 when Devlyn was RI President says that he greatly enjoyed the “many fruitful and intellectually stimulating exchanges I have had working with him. His inspiring oratorical skills and uplifting message of selfless service to society made him a voice that Rotarians across the world and especially here in India listen to with rapt attention. I will always cherish the interactions Mala and I had with him and his wife Gloria. His demise is a loss not only to his family but also to Rotary and Rotarians across the globe.”

Instrumental in getting present

Almost every Rotary leader recalls how Frank Devlyn was instrumental in Rotary acquiring One Rotary Center, its headquarters in Evanston, Chicago. But PRIP Ray Klinginsmith has the details. “Frank helped to shape Rotary in a much more direct way during his first year on the RI Board, which was my second year on the Board as the Executive Committee chair in 1986–87.”

RI had outgrown its headquarters building at 1600 Ridge Avenue in Evanston, and “we spent considerable time in designing an addition for the building. However, we found it was going to be too expensive because the building was located in a historical district and all parking lots had to be below the ground, and thereby below the water table! So, Frank said let’s buy the vacated American Hospital Supply building downtown on Sherman Avenue.”

But that building was 18 stories tall, which was more space than RI needed, and the sale price was a whopping $22.5 million. “It was clearly more than we needed, and more than we could afford! But Frank persisted, and as we gathered more information about taking over the existing debt and renting the unneeded space, it became a very attractive arrangement. The RI Board voted to buy the building, which is now known as One Rotary Center, and Frank was clearly the leading advocate for the deal!”

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