Rotary International President Shekhar Mehta and his wife Rashi met Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg Saturday afternoon at the Francis Marion Hotel. Also pictured are former Rotary International Vice President Anne Matthews of Columbia and the local Rotary district's current president, Paul R. Walter of Hilton Head Island. | Credit: Photo provided

South Carolina’s generosity was on full display Saturday night as about 50 big-donor Rotarians celebrated at a gala in Charleston’s Francis Marion Hotel — the very place their predecessors helped to build 97 years ago.

In attendance to pat them on the back was the most prominent Rotarian in the world — Rotary International President Shekhar Mehta of West Bengal, India. Mehta, an accountant by profession, visited the Holy City to thank Rotarians from the eastern half of the state for raising more than $2 million in new gifts of $10,000 or more over the last 18 months to help Rotary International’s philanthropic projects around the world. Among its top efforts are global projects to eradicate polio and provide clean drinking water to third-world countries.

“There are super-generous people in your area,” Mehta said in an exclusive interview. “They’re doing amazing things in the world. Like bringing water to people who do not have water, bringing homes to people without homes, bringing food to the hungry. They bring health to the needy. All this is being done in your backyard through an organization called Rotary.”

Mehta

Rotary International, founded in 1905 in Chicago, is one of the world’s largest nonprofit community service organizations with 1.4 million members in 35,000 clubs. Sixteen years after five business leaders in Chicago organized the first club, 22 Charleston businessmen started the organization’s 624th club and first in the Lowcountry. Called the Rotary Club of Charleston, one of its first big projects was to sell $50,000 of stock (worth about $800,000 in purchasing power today) in the Francis Marion Hotel to help it get started. The complex, which hosted the club’s meetings for years, now is owned by local Rotarian Steve Dopp.

Since 1917, Rotarians around the world have contributed more than $4 billion to sustainable projects, the organization said. Mehta shared how he had been involved in helping more than 2,500 children in India get life-saving heart surgeries over the last 15 years. 

“It’s a story that touches your heart,” he said, recalling how parents who earn $100 a month can’t afford surgeries that cost more than they earn in 20 years. “It’s so expensive. And they cannot bear the thought that their child may die. Then comes Rotary. The magic wand gets the surgery done. And changes lives.”

Anne L. Matthews of Columbia, who served as the first female Rotary International vice president, said she’s known Mehta for more than 20 years.

“There is nobody — nobody — who epitomizes ‘service above self’ more than Shekhar Mehta,” she said. “He’s just done so much in India that’s very deserving and has earned the title of president of Rotary International.”

In recognition of the more than $2 million raised by the local Rotary district, which has more than 80 clubs and 3,400 members, Gov. Henry McMaster, a longtime Rotarian, proclaimed Nov. 6 as “The Rotary Foundation Day” in South Carolina. He encouraged residents to recognize Rotarians “for their contributions that improve the lives of people around the world.”

Disclosure: Brack, publisher of the City Paper, is a past president of the Rotary Club of Charleston. He also edited the club’s history, “Service Above Self.”