Harris had not seen this kind of camaraderie among businessmen since moving to Chicago in 1896. He wondered if there was a way to channel it because it reminded him of growing up in Wallingford, Vermont. Harris eventually persuaded local businessmen to join him in a club for community and fellowship. His vision laid the foundation for Rotary.
“The thought persisted that I was experiencing only what had happened to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others in the great city … I was sure that there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago ... Why not bring them together? If others were longing for fellowship as I was, something would come of it.”
Harris was born on 19 April 1868 to George H. and Cornelia Bryan Harris in Racine, Wisconsin, USA. George attempted to support his family as a small-business owner but he often relied on his father for financial assistance. In July 1871 that reliance became permanent when Harris and his older brother, Cecil, were sent to live with their paternal grandparents in Wallingford, Vermont. Harris later wrote, “Of all charges which might have been made against George and Cornelia, parsimony would have stood the least chance. They were both royal spenders.”
Harris was raised by his grandparents, Howard and Pamela Rustin Harris, and saw his parents only occasionally. He grew to revere the family values that characterized the New England of his youth. In October 1928, when he returned to his boyhood home for the charter night celebration of the Rotary Club of Wallingford, he proclaimed, “Much that there is in Rotary today can be traced back to the good old New England family table.”
He was a mischievous child. He attended primary school in Wallingford and secondary school in Rutland, where he played pranks and skipped class. He also attended Black River Academy in Ludlow but was expelled after only a few weeks. Harris enrolled at the University of Vermont in Burlington but was expelled with three others in December 1886 because of his involvement in an underground society. He later wrote that although he was innocent of the crime he was accused of, the expulsion was nonetheless justified.
Harris spent the spring with a private tutor and in the fall of 1887, he enrolled at Princeton University. His time at Princeton was cut short by the death of his grandfather in March 1888. He completed the semester but did not return to school the next year.
After Princeton, Harris made his way to Iowa, where he found his professional calling working at the law firm of St. John, Stevenson, and Whisenand in Des Moines. After his apprenticeship, he attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in June 1891.
In 1896 Harris settled in Chicago, where he opened a law practice in the central business district. He remained active in his professional practice for more than four decades.
Harris sought meaningful personal and spiritual relationships in addition to his professional achievements. He attended religious services on Sundays but visited many different churches rather than aligning himself with one congregation. Later in his life, he said that his religious affiliations were, like himself, difficult to label. “I really have no church affiliations … I am not easily classified; that is to say my convictions are not that of that definite nature essential to whole-hearted affiliation with the general run of churches. … Of course, these days one can hear the best of preaching over the radio and I generally hear three or four sermons every Sunday.”
Harris loved nature, and in 1908 he joined a group that organized monthly Saturday afternoon walking trips through the forests, fields, hills, and valleys around the city. In 1911 the group became the Prairie Club, and Harris served as one of its directors.