A tribute to a tireless polio eradication volunteer


Video from the memorial service for Jack Blane

By David Waring, Past President, Breakfast Rotary Club of Barrington, Illinois, and Past Governor of Rotary District 6440

When polio is finally eradicated from the planet and we look back on Rotary’s role in making that happen, one of the first persons history is certain to smile upon will be Jack Blane. Sadly, Jack did not live to see the day that we all look forward to, but his remarkable contribution and tireless efforts live on as we bring this worthy battle to its conclusion. 

I first met Jack in 1999 at a district conference. By that time, Jack had already been deeply involved in the fight against polio for 20 years. Jack was governor of Rotary District 6440 in Northern Illinois in 1979, when the Rotary war on polio began. Rotary made a commitment to deliver the oral polio vaccine to six million children in the Philippines, the first project conceived under Rotary’s new Health, Hunger and Humanity (3H) program.

Personal commitment

I soon learned from Jack that his personal commitment to fight polio grew out of his experience at a Boy Scout summer camp in 1937 when two boys died, six were paralyzed, and the others were sent home and quarantined until school started. Jack said he had felt blessed not to be affected and had vowed that he would someday try to prevent others from being stricken.

Jack and I found that we had much in common – from Boy Scouts to Rotary – and we just became fast friends. Jack also became my mentor. When I became a district governor in 2006, I felt honored to have Jack do my installation.

Rotary’s success in the Philippines spurred the commitment not only to fight polio but to end it around the world. That experiment showed that we could master the logistics – transportation, distribution, and education. In 1986, Jack was appointed International Executive Coordinator of the Campaign to Eradicate Polio World-Wide. Over the next three years, he traveled to 30 countries to help educate and organize their national committees. Jack and his group reached out to every Rotarian and said, “I don’t want just your money, I want your time, I want your labor, I want you.” They recruited an army of dedicated Rotarians numbering in the thousands.

Rotary set a fundraising goal of $120 million. The campaign brought in a staggering $247 million! I’d like to put that accomplishment in perspective: This was before cell phone, internet, laptop computer, and teleconferencing. Communication was through letters, expensive phone calls, and in-person contacts.

As Jack got deeper into understanding the critical value of immunization, he came to believe that we also had to confront the danger posed by other infectious diseases in our own backyard. In 1999, Jack and his wife, Joan, donated $1 million to The Rotary Foundation to establish the Blane Community Immunization Grant program, which provided matching funds for Rotary club projects that increase immunization rates for at-risk populations in their local communities. Countless diseases prevented and lives saved. Thank you, Jack and Joan.

Eventful dinner conversation

Early this century, Rotary launched the Polio Eradication Private Sector Initiative in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. Jack led the Midwest Region and invited me to serve on his committee. At a meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, I saw Jack work his magic. In 2007, when I became district governor, I was able to get Bill Gates Sr., and Past RI President Luis Vicente Giay, who at that time was the Trustee Chair of the Foundation, to attend our district conference.

One of the smartest things I ever did was to sit Jack next to Bill Gates Sr. at our dinner on Thursday evening. I knew that Jack would be able to answer every question that Mr. Gates had, in addition to questions that he didn’t even know needed to be asked.

That evening, Jack made the pitch. The next morning, Luis Giay met with Bill Gates Sr., and closed the sale. Before that meeting, the Gates Foundation was a generous donor to the polio eradication effort. After that meeting, Gates became a full partner. Six months after our district conference, the Gates Foundation announced its challenge grant of $100 million. That challenge grant led to another, and since then, that matching program has led us past the once unthinkable contribution level of $1 billion.

Jack Blane was a proud Rotarian from 1962 until February of this year when he passed away — 56 years of selfless service during which he embodied the best of Rotary.  He became president of the Rotary Club of Wheeling, Illinois, in 1975-1976, and again in 2016-2017 at the ripe young age of 93!

Rotary’s finest hour

Jack’s fundraising achievements are astonishing, but for him, it wasn’t about the money raised. It was about the children’s lives saved.  Jack would not be pleased if I called him “Billion Dollar Jack.”  But if we call him “Billion Children Jack,” he’d be good with that.

Billion Children Jack. It’s now up to us to honor his legacy and carry on his work. We must collectively become “Billion Children Rotarians.”  That’s what Jack would want. He lived by that Boy Scout motto “Always leave the campsite better than you found it.”

That historic convention in Philadelphia 30 years ago, when the results of the fundraising campaign were announced, is known as Rotary’s “finest hour.” As I heard Jack say more than once, “There will be an even finer hour coming up.”  We’re this close. Let’s finish the job. For Jack, for those he inspired to be like him, and for all the children whose lives we can save.

4 thoughts on “A tribute to a tireless polio eradication volunteer

  1. “BILLION CHILDREN JACK”, A GREAT STORY. THANKS FOR SHARING. PDG KEN GNADT 04-05, DISTRICT 5630, GRAND ISLAND, NEBRASKA.

    Like

  2. This is really an awesome quality of extremely devoted Rotarian whose life will inspire millions of Rotarians for decades to come.
    Billion Children Jacks never die…!!

    Like

  3. May God rest his soul and give us the strength and resources to see this fight against Polio to the end. I feel honoured to be part of this war as a Rotarian.

    Like

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