“SERVICE THE ONE GREAT IDEAL”
by President Warren G. Harding
[Address before the Rotary International Convention, Coliseum, St. Louis, Mo., June 21, 1923, 4:30 p. m.]
Mr. Chairman and Fellow Rotarians:
If I ever make another application for Rotarian membership and a special class cannot be found in which to place me, I am going to propose that they admit me as the chief consumer of films in the United States.
It is a joy to come and greet you. You are not precisely on my schedule; but let me say that if I could plant the spirit of Rotary in every community throughout the
world I would do so, and then I would guarantee the tranquility and the forward march of the world. Statesmen have their problems; governments have theirs; but if we could spread the spirit of Rotary throughout the globe and turn it to practical application, there would not be much wrong with the human procession.
Story of the Blacksmith
I can understand how you have grown and how you have come to exercise a great influence. It is because, fellow Rotarians, no matter whence you come, service is the greatest thing in the world and you are always performing some service, and doing so conscientiously. You are saving America from a sordid existence and putting a little more of soul in the life of this Republic. I do not pretend to say that you are alone in the good work; but I do not wish America ever to be without ideals. I do not want our America to be without some practical conception of service, and then I want that conception put into practice.
Nor do I come to recommend a service that shall be wholly free from compensation. Every service in life worthwhile has its compensation. Some of you, perhaps, have seen what I consider one of the greatest plays, if not the greatest, that was ever written. You may have seen Forbes Robertson, the great English actor, in ‘The Passing of the Third Floor Back.” In that play he became a dweller in a boarding house where the boarders were ill-tempered, irritable, and living at cross purposes, and he brought to that unhappy place the spirit of service. He taught the dissatisfied house servant that after all there was a dignity to the humblest service in the world, and that honesty ought to attend it; he taught the dishonest gambler how honesty would elevate his life; he put an end to the snob, and everywhere, by the preaching of the dignity of and the compensation in service he transformed an unhappy household into one of the happiest and most harmonious.
My convictions came from the atmosphere of the small town in which I began my life. In that little town where I ran a newspaper for so many years — I will not recount their number — one day there came a modest little black- smith, who had nothing in the world but genius in his head and courage in his heart. He did not have a dollar of money, but with his genius and his courage he convinced some other men that he could be of service in the upbuilding of that community by the establishment of an industry. He succeeded in establishing it, and it grew until the modest little blacksmith became the outstanding captain of industry in that community. As he served he profited in serving; he aided working men to acquire homes; he relieved the distressed; he offered sympathy. He was the outstanding figure in a community of twenty or twenty-five thousand people, and one day when, all too soon, his career of service came to an end, every activity in that community wasstopped, and everybody halted to do reverence to the memory of a man who had come to the village to serve and to make it and his fellows better.
Put Ideals Into Practice
I can give you a more striking example than that, however. In a town in Ohio some years ago, there lived a veteran of the Civil War, whose heroism and whose capacity combined to make him a brigadier general in the war for the Union; but he, unfortunately, had his public career marred prior to the war without any fault on his part, and so he was obliged to forego public life for which he was eminently fitted. However, he gave of his eloquent tongue, unmatched in America, to service, and he gave of his great big heart to service, and he gave of his practical mind to service, so that he became the greatest contributor to the community in which he resided. One day when he came to his end, after ripened years, not only did the whole community stop to mourn him, but every tear that was dropped upon the bier of General W. H. Gibson reflected the rainbow that spanned the arch between reverence and affection. There was paid to this humble man of service the greatest tribute that community life may pay.
Oh, fellow Rotarians, your service is not alone in developing your ideals; it is in putting your ideals into practice. What the world needs today more than anything else is to understand that service alone will bring about restoration after the tumult of the World War. If we can all get down to service, ample service, honest service, helpful service, and appreciate the things that humanity must do to insure recovery, then there will come out of the great despondency and discouragement and distress of the world a new order; and someday I fancy I shall see the emblem of Rotary in the foreground, because you of Rotary, representative of the best we have in America, have played your big part in making service one of the appraised worthwhile offerings of humankind.