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Superheroes in Bad Ties

A Precious Window of Opportunity Is Closing. Can a Bunch of Glad-Handing Rotarians Really Save the World From Polio Before the Chance Is Lost Forever?

January 19, 2003|Susan Emerling | Susan Emerling is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

Every Tuesday at noon, the Rotary Club of Simi Valley holds its weekly meeting in a hotel ballroom. The 60 or so members--local businessmen and businesswomen, civic leaders and retirees--collect their name tags and backslap their way through the buffet line. Then, against a backdrop of Rotary banners from around the world, the club president rings a bell and the group rises for the pledge of allegiance and a sing-along of "God Bless America."

Then it's on to weekly reminders of birthdays, anniversaries and bawdy jokes about this year's Rotary theme: "Sewing the seeds of love." ("After 25 years of marriage, my wife and I almost have sex every night. We almost had it on Monday, we almost had it on Tuesday . . . .") Next is the weekly bad-tie contest and the collection of "happy bucks," which triggers a round of good-humored banter as club members donate a few dollars to charity in the name of something that makes them happy. Someone kicks in a dollar to celebrate the purchase of her first home. Her realtor kicks in two, one to celebrate the sale and another to apologize for missing the new owner's painting party. A third member throws in a dollar to tease a trustee of the local community college whom "radical right-wing Republicans" want to see ousted. An insurance salesman, one of the few Democrats present, throws in a buck because he's happy that someone in the group finally called them "radical right-wing Republicans."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 365 words Type of Material: Correction
Rotary International theme -- An article in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on Rotary International's efforts to eradicate polio ("Superheroes in Bad Ties," Jan. 19) incorrectly stated this year's Rotary theme as "Sewing the seeds of love." It is "Sow the seeds of love."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 23, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 10 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
The article on Rotary International's efforts to eradicate polio ("Superheroes in Bad Ties," Jan. 19) incorrectly stated this year's Rotary theme. It is "Sow the seeds of love."

Before the day's speaker takes the podium, in a moment that passes without fanfare, a member announces that the Rotary Club of Los Olivos is raffling a cruise to Tahiti to support Rotary's campaign to rid the planet of polio. Heads nod and the club moves on to the next order of business. Left unsaid is any hint of a story that, despite the corny bonhomie of the day's proceedings, is as dramatic as it is astounding in its scope, ambition and logistics.

Beginning with their first fund-raising campaign in 1985, Rotarians all over the world have been washing cars, racing rubber duckies, and holding golf tournaments, flea markets and rodeos to raise money for the fight to finish off polio. They have auctioned 60-year-old bottles of scotch and a '57 Chevy, ocean cruises and a BMW. One Rotary club--today there are more than 30,000 clubs (375 of them in Southern California), with 1.2 million members in 163 countries--built and raffled a luxury home. Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso and a childhood polio victim, played a benefit concert in Cleveland. A 7-year-old girl in India roller-skated 1,250 miles in 41 days. A man who contracted polio in Santa Monica in 1948 and spent part of his childhood in an iron lung joined Rotary and donated more than $10,000. Many Rotarians have written the polio-eradication program into their wills, and one Chicago member gave $1 million.

By focusing on its goal for nearly 20 years, Rotary International--the merry-making civic organization characterized by Larry King as a bunch of guys in brown suits who sell each other insurance over lunch--has been the primary catalyst in driving one of humanity's most insidious diseases to the brink of extinction. With an extraordinary single-mindedness, the club with a reputation as local do-gooders has battled a stealthy and stubborn virus and problem-solved its way through staggering logistical challenges, a brief lapse of will and reminders that the world, at times, seems to be working against Rotary's noble goal.

One week from today, 530 of Rotary's newly elected district governors, their spouses and Rotary's board of trustees will arrive in Anaheim from 158 countries. Among other things, they will fire themselves up to raise another $80 million to finish the job Rotary began nearly two decades ago. Along with its partners--the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)--Rotary hopes to celebrate victory on its 100th anniversary in 2005. If that happens, polio will be only the second disease in history to be eradicated.

Rotary began its seemingly quixotic quest in the heady days after the defeat of smallpox, which made other global health challenges seem less daunting. It also was a time when the world seemed capable of working together toward a noble goal. Who could have imagined that today's headlines would be filled with news of anthrax bioterrorism and threats of smallpox as a weapon of war? The world today is a far different place than it was 20 years ago, and Rotary's remarkable efforts to make it a better place have taken on a delicate poignancy. Its success or failure will either affirm humanity's best impulses or its worst, and say much about our stewardship of the planet.

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