A father’s example connects with Rotary ideals today

By Jay Pennie

The following is my address to the members of the Rotary Club of Philadelphia yesterday at the Pyramid Club of Philadelphia:

Welcome everyone. I’m honored to serve as your club President. 

I thought I would share a few things about me that you may not know as well as my thoughts and aspirations about the upcoming year. 

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, the youngest of six children. By any measure, my family was poor and in fact my parents did not own a house, car, or very many possessions. For a time, six children and two adults lived in one small row house with three bedrooms and one tiny bathroom. Do the math. However, my parents provided everything a child really needs— food, shelter, fun, discipline, and of course, love. 

After working in the literally deafening and backbreaking printing industry for almost 40 years, my father later in life was forced to accept a lower paying, but physically less demanding job at Temple University doing what would today be considered menial work—tracking and caring for the University’s athletic equipment. The pay was less, but at least his aging body could handle the physical workload. 

However, that menial job afforded me, his youngest, free tuition at Temple University for three of my four years, the opportunity to earn my undergraduate degree, and be the first in my family to attend college. It was always clear that my parents could not afford to pay for college tuition. They would never think of borrowing money and they never even had a credit card. So his employee benefit was a lucky break for me. Reflecting back many years later after both my parents passed away, I realize that I have my mother’s temperament (usually calm, sometime not) and my father’s stubbornness. 

Among the attributes that my father possessed, and which had a profound impact on me, was his strong work ethic and sense of volunteerism. Though he worked tirelessly every day for more than 45 years (he never called in sick), he actively helped my mother raise a family of six from changing diapers to washing dishes. Yet he still found the time and energy to volunteer for our church three times a week and regularly helped feed the homeless at a mission house not far from here. 

Until my early thirties, my motto was more the reverse of Rotary’s—“Self before service.” I prioritized money, career, and enjoyment as number one. But, at a later point, I felt something was missing in my life. I remember one particular day my boss called and offered me a big promotion. I thanked him for the opportunity but I declined the offer. He knew from my voice that something was troubling me. I told him that there has to be more to a career than making lots of money and selling things to people that they don’t really need. That is the point at which I decided to leave the for profit business sector for the nonprofit world. I’m most happy with helping organizations do a better job of helping others. Now, after working in several organizations in that sector for almost 20 years, I started my own consulting business this past February which is dedicated to serving the needs of the nonprofit community.  

My first introduction to Rotary came from one of our former members, Lynmar Brock, who I miss dearly. I think Lynmar is a bit of a legend in the Rotary world. At least that is my impression. He is one of the most gregarious and wonderful people in the world. I knew him through a previous business arrangement. He attended a community outreach event that I was leading, which was one of the first Day of Painting events at the art school where I was working at the time. After the event, he explained a bit about Rotary and invited me to attend one of the club meetings as his guest. After a few weeks attending as his guest, he asked me to join the club. Lynmar is a great salesman and is hard to say no to. So, I joined the club in August 2010. 

What impressed me most about that first lunch meeting still stands today. The Rotary Club of Philadelphia members were smart, accomplished, generous, and friendly. One member, Sandy Goldberg, asked me right away to join her on the fundraising committee and I said, sure, why not. It was the best thing for me because it helped me get to know the members and got me involved.  

There are a few lessons that you can take from my experience pertaining to membership. One, a member asked me to join him as his guest first and then join the club. Two, the members were very friendly toward me. Three, someone reached out to me immediately and somehow engaged me in the club activities. A year or so later, I chaired the Fundraising Committee and together we raised funds over four years to inoculate 11,000 from receiving the debilitating and sometimes deadly disease, Polio. And here I am nine years later as President. 

In addition to volunteering for Rotary, I serve as a Panelist and Grant Reviewer for the Philadelphia Cultural Fund which distributes $2.7 million annually to arts and cultural organizations. I also volunteer for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and serve as a Visiting Evaluator for the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, the nation’s leading art and design accreditor. So, I try to keep myself busy.   

The theme for the New Year is: “Rotary Connects the World.” For me, the following summarizes this year’s theme best: The Rotary Club of Philadelphia is united with 1.2 million members, 35,000 clubs, and 16 million volunteers in 200 countries. Our club has been taking action locally and globally for more than 100 years through community service and granting $30,000 annually to worthy local and international causes. 

But, the challenges are great right here in our own community.  I’ll mention just one. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate of any large city in the U.S. at 26% compared with the national average of 16% or over 400,000 residents.  The poverty rate is considered at $19K household income with one adult and two children. Poverty is linked to many other problems: unequal access to quality education, increased homelessness, poor diet, inadequate healthcare, hunger, neighborhood violence, mass incarceration to name a few. 

At the same time, Philadelphia has tremendous wealth concentrated in areas such as Center City Philadelphia and the suburban Main Line areas. These local issues create a tremendous need in which the Rotary Club of Philadelphia can continue to help and perhaps help more. We could use 100 Rotary Clubs right here in this area to just put a dent into the problem.  

We also have a few challenges in our own club that we need to resolve. The board of directors recently surveyed the membership to obtain a candid opinion on the club’s strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats. Healthy organizations do this on a regular basis. This process gave us a great view of where we are from the perspective of the membership. Our strengths and opportunities are many. But, we also have to evaluate our weaknesses and potential threats to better plan for the future and position ourselves to maximize our impact into the community. We need to plan farther out than just next year. We need to think both tactically and strategically. 

My leadership philosophy is twofold: 1) It does not matter what I think. It matters what YOU, the members think because I serve at the pleasure of the membership. 2) I’m a uniter, not a divider.

 I will make mistakes and I’m sure someone will inform me and hopefully guide me along the way. We have a lot to do. But, I am only one person. I am blessed with a tremendous board of directors and committee chairs that I know will make good things happen this year. All of our members should be serving on at least one committee. We will have a club assembly in the coming weeks so that we can hear from each of the committees about the plans for the year. But we all have to work together as Rotarians and pitch in and help the club for the good of our community. They need us. 

Rotary International wants each club President every year to develop goals for the year such as how many new members, how many service projects, which I will do, with the help of the board and committee chairs and after completing the strategic plan. 

But my one overall goal as club President is the same one that I have had in every organization that I have been a part of. When I come to the end of my term this time next year, I want to have made our club stronger and a better organization than when I began. With your help, I know we can achieve that goal. 

I will leave you with a quote that resonates with me from Rotary’s founder, Paul Harris: “Whatever Rotary may mean to us, to the world it will be known by the results it achieves.” Let’s work together to achieve some results through our actions. 

Thank you all for your continued service and your confidence in me as club President.    

Jay Pennie
President, 2019-2020
Rotary Club of Philadelphia