Ron Burton has made the world his office.
Over the past year, the Rotary International president has traveled more than half-a-million miles across 50 countries, to inspire and motivate Rotary’s 1.2 million members. Although many encouraged him to use cheaper, virtual alternatives, he believes it takes face-to-face engagement.
“I was the first president to have a Google Hangout and have done Facebook chats,” Burton says, reflecting on his term, which ends at midnight 30 June. “But I asked Rotarians this year to Engage Rotary, Change Lives, so I needed to live that as well, by sitting at kitchen tables talking to families, visiting community projects, speaking to clubs, and [meeting] with other leaders around the world to promote Rotary’s good work.”
Burton, Rotary’s 105th president, calls the job one of “awesome and great responsibility.”
“It’s a great honor to follow in the footsteps of [Rotary’s founder] Paul Harris,” says Burton, a member of the Rotary Club of Norman, Oklahoma, in the U.S. “When I travel around the world, I’m able to meet Rotarians from every walk of life and every culture. And all of them have such a deep respect for the office.” He adds that it’s been important to remember that “this position isn’t about me. It’s about the job.”
The job of Rotary president essentially begins election to the position a year before taking office. Presidents-elect set an agenda for the coming year, pick committee chairs, and work on the convention program. All of that, Burton says, is to set the stage for a successful term. And looking back on the past two years, he’s reminded of an adage from back home.
“There’s a saying in Oklahoma that where you go in life, whatever job you set out to do, you should always leave the woodpile a little higher than it was when you found it,” he says. “With the tremendous support of Rotarians worldwide, I believe we accomplished that this year.”
A big contribution to that woodpile is one of the things Burton is most proud. He asked each one of his 537 district governors to make a gift to The Rotary Foundation. No matter the size of the contribution or the fund, he wanted all of them to show support for the Foundation. And they did, becoming the first district governor class to make that commitment, raising more than $700,000.
“What we’re talking about here is a change of thinking, a change in culture,” says Burton. “There needs to be the thought that this is our Foundation and the more we support it, the more lives we can change.”
President-elect Gary Huang followed Burton’s lead and has asked his own class of governors to do the same. The group has already contributed $1 million for the Foundation.
“I hope what we started becomes a tradition with all Rotary presidents,” says Burton.
Another highlight of the year was during the Victory Over Polio celebration in February at Talkatora Stadium in New Delhi. The nationally televised event hailed India’s third consecutive year of being polio-free.
Burton was among several speakers that included Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, and World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan.
What made the event memorable for Burton was a small gesture that had a big impact. Before leaving the stage President Mukherjee walked over to Burton, shook his hand, and thanked him and Rotary for their incredible contribution to India’s accomplishments.
Burton says the gesture “shows the respect Rotary has in India and the tremendous appreciation for what we’ve done. It was a proud moment for me and Rotary.”
Sydney convention caps off “unforgettable” year
For Rotary presidents, the convention is the pinnacle of their terms.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better convention. What I was most proud of [was] our speakers,” he says of the convention in Sydney. “Every one of them spoke with such enthusiasm and brought a unique and powerful message that relates to what we do at Rotary. I heard from so many Rotarians afterward how great they were.”
Burton was especially impressed with the speakers on the last day who focused on new generations and the future of Rotary, calling it the most important message of the event.
“Our youth program participants and alumni can be one of our strongest assets moving forward,” he says. “And the speakers who represented this movement knocked the message out of the park. If that doesn’t wake up this organization, I don’t know what will.”
During his final speech of the convention, Burton became emotional as he thanked Rotarians for their support during his year. “It was a bittersweet moment. It hit me during the end of my speech how great our organization is and why. It’s because of the people in the audience,” he says.
Burton is looking forward to returning to Oklahoma after two years of being away. “I can’t wait to spend time with my family and hanging out at my pool all day,” he says.
Burton, who has held almost every senior-level position at Rotary, says there’s one thing important to remember when he leaves office.
“On July first, I’m going to hold only one title and it’s the most important: Rotarian.”