NOTE: This was sent to me by a friend and District Governor Kees van der Pol of District 5080. It’s well worth reading to remind ourselves of just what it means to be a Rotarian. – Ray Sanford
To: The Rotarian Magazine
Submitted with respect by Michael Liddicoat
Vern Nielsen sits in a chair in Kelowna, British Columbia attached to a tube. A cocktail of chemicals winds its way through the tube and into Vern’s veins. This cocktail is just one of three such treatments that Vern must take every two weeks. The chemicals are searching out a particularly aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. The survival rate for this disease is about 2% within 12 months. Vern is in month five.
I didn’t hear about Vern in a medical journal. He wasn’t on the nightly news. His picture is not on my Facebook feed. Vern was standing in front of my Rotary club. As a district governor, Vern has spent the last two years preparing to motivate and guide the 60 clubs in Rotary District 5060, which covers parts of Washington State and British Columbia. Some might have thought he wasted those two years of preparing.
The news of his cancer should have changed Vern’s plans. In his talk, he joked of trading in his time with Rotary for his bucket list. With the possibility of six months left to live, most people would change their outlook on life.
Vern would tell you he has.
Rather than looking inward though, he is looking outward. A more egotistical thing might be to take his partner on the trips they never had time for. Spend cash like there’s no tomorrow and reach his end at frantic pace, trying to accomplish all that he had planned to do in the next 30 years in just 6 months.
Vern is not that kind of man.
Vern told my Rotary club of his desire to help others. The Rotary International moto is, “Service Above Self.” You only get to be a district governor by embodying this idea. Vern has been involved in multiple successful companies. He has guided numerous non-profit organizations.
Traveling the world to help in other countries and contribute to the betterment of mankind is just one of the many reasons Vern was asked to be a District Governor for Rotary. As Vern stood in front of my club, he asked all of us to do our part.
The specific ask was very different than I’m used to.
As a Rotarian you are asked to do many things. Raise money for local playgrounds, gather donations for a local food drive, or fight Polio, a disease that ravaged every country in the world as recently as 50 years ago and until July of 2016 had gone almost an entire year without a new wild case of the disease.
You see Rotarians care about their fellow humans and seek ways to improve their community. For some clubs this is done on a local scale by giving food to children before the start of the school day so that education instead of hunger can be their focus. For other clubs their community is the world so they start projects like Polio Plus or the United Nations.
When Vern Nielsen stands in front of your Rotary club as the District Governor and announces that he has pancreatic cancer and will probably not see the end of his term and then says he has an ask, you expect this to be the mother of all asks.
Vern asked us to talk. No back breaking projects, no huge fundraisers, no world unity events. Vern Nielsen asked that we talk with our friends about what we do as Rotarians.
You see Vern believes that Rotarians don’t talk enough about what we do. Rotary International partners with some of the largest organizations and non-profits in the world. Rotarians have received millions of dollars from organizations to do the work we do. Tyrants and governors in war torn countries have called ceasefires to allow Rotarians to bring aid to their people. Despite all this Rotarians have been a dying breed for the last few decades. Each year there are fewer and fewer Rotarians in every community.
Vern Nielsen believes that Rotarians don’t talk enough about what Rotarians do.
All Rotary clubs meet once a week. It can be breakfast, lunch, dinner or even after work drinks that bring them together. Guests are always invited but few come for more than one or two visits. There is a dis-connect between the weekly gatherings and the work Rotarians do.
It’s difficult to describe how your Rotary club has impacted your community. That’s why Rotarians usually put a seal on their projects. We don’t like to boast and brag about the work we’ve done. When we build a bus stop for those that need shelter, we don’t ask for a thank you. We know that it’s being used because we see the people getting a moments rest from the harsh wind. Rotarians know what the golden gear / wheel or whatever you want to call it means. Vern believes that it’s not enough for Rotarians to know. He wants our friends to know what that golden gear / wheel or whatever you want to call it means.
It’s friends that often help us reach understanding. In the time leading up to Vern’s role as District Governor and before his diagnosis there were many trainings and events to go to. Between one of these a very good friend of his approached him. This friend walked up and said, “So Vern, I hear you’re going to be the grand poohbah of Rotary.” In his telling of the story Vern chuckles, “Well not quite. I’ll be the District Governor.”
His friend of numerous years looked at Vern. This friend had watched Vern leave many evenings to volunteer, go to trainings, and fly out of the country all in the name of Rotary. This friend looked at Vern and said, “What is Rotary anyway?” Vern was speechless. His friend didn’t know about the most influential group in Vern’s life. The group that had demanded so much of Vern but provided him with innumerable opportunities to better his community and himself was a foreign word to this friend. This was where Vern began to understand.
“I knew in that moment that we Rotarians need to tell others about the good we do. We need to be our own public relations. We need to speak up about what we do. Not so that others will join us, but so that others will know.”
At the end of the District Governors speech I stood and applauded. I applauded for his insight into what we, as Rotarians, should do to help our communities. How it was our small contributions that could change the world economy or improve the lives of others. I applauded for a man who openly admitted that in four days the drugs that would be coursing through his body would make him into a different man.
A man weak and debilitated. A man unable to carry the burden his title brought with it. A tear came to my eye as well. Before me stood a Rotarian. A member of a small group of individuals who is striving to make his community better. For years I too have called myself a Rotarian. I wondered how many of my friends know what this word means to me.
Should I walk into the doctor’s office tomorrow and be informed that I too had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, would I behave like Vern Nielson? The motto of “Service Above Self” is a very nice thing to hang on our meeting wall. Would I be able to live up to that motto if I faced Vern’s choice? I don’t know.
I know that before me on that day stood a man who was happy. He has had a full life that is potentially being cut short by a terrible disease. What else would Vern have accomplished had he been given more time? That thought is not on Vern’s mind. Doctors cannot tell him how many days he has left. The treatments he receives in his chair are meant to make them as numerous as possible. The time he is given by this treatment will be spent doing the thing that means the most to him.
Vern will tell others he is a Rotarian. He is the man who built toilets in countries you haven’t heard of so that little girls wouldn’t be embarrassed by their periods and could continue to stay in school. He is the man who helps put jam on toast so students can have a meal before school starts. Vern Nielsen is a Rotarian. His personal motto is the same as every Rotarian’s, “Service Above Self.”
When Vern’s done taking his medicine he will lie down for a while. To rest, to rejuvenate, and to recuperate before going to his next Rotary meeting. Like all of us, Vern will eventually lie down forever. This time may be sooner than any of us would like. Vern’s family will have seen the good he’s done. His friends will remember the times they shared.
I only got to meet Vern Nielsen once. In the forty minutes he spoke, Vern inspired me. He showed me that a motto can be more than words we put on a wall. I am a Rotarian, just like Vern. We are all lucky to have neighbors like him.