Rotarians pay tribute to Sam F. Owori: A man of quiet confidence

Rotary International President-elect Sam F. Owori died unexpectedly on 13 July due to complications from surgery. Sam, who had been elected to serve as president of Rotary International in 2018-19, would have been the second African Rotary member, and the first Ugandan, to hold that office. Two members of Rotary pay tribute to him in their own words.

By John Smarge

Rotary Club of Naples, Fla., USA; Aide to Sam F. Owori

Sam Owori and I served together on the Rotary International Board of Directors from 2010 to 2012. Sam was not one to offer his opinion on every topic; instead, he reserved his comments for those issues about which he felt most strongly. Those matters usually centered on audit, governance, or Rotary in Africa. Though Sam spoke softly, his words were always deliberate, concise, and highly regarded by his fellow Board members.

Over the eight months that I was Sam's aide, my wife, Cindy, and I spent more time with him and his wife, Norah, than with our own family members. Because of this, I'm still finding it difficult to refer to Sam in the past tense.

I have no doubt that he is loved by Rotarians around the world. Sam's vision, his care and compassion for others, and his humility and thoughtfulness will live on in all of us. When we bring in a new member, Sam's legacy will continue. With each service project, we will pay tribute to a man whose professional, personal, and religious life experiences uniquely positioned him to serve others.

Sam and Nora Owori

Sam understood the value of membership in a Rotary club and embraced our mottoes of One Profits Most Who Serves Best and Service Above Self.

He joined the Rotary Club of Kampala, Uganda, in 1978. This was shortly before Uganda emerged from dictatorship, an event that eased travel restrictions and allowed Sam to attend his first district conference in Nairobi. The conference, and the diversity of thought and dialogue among the participants, made a lasting impression on him. He realized that even though there was tension between governments, among fellow Rotarians there was love, compassion, and a common vision for a better Africa.

In 1983, the year Sam served as president of the Rotary Club of Kampala, he attended the Africa Conference of Goodwill. He heard great speakers, among them Mother Teresa. However, his favorite memory was meeting then-Rotary President Hiroji Mukasa from Japan. He viewed the presidency of Rotary International as an unbelievable honor and the ultimate opportunity to make a positive impact on his community, country, continent, and the world.

In the brief time that Sam served as Rotary's president-elect – a mere two weeks – you could see the love that Rotarians had for him. At the convention in Atlanta, when Sam took the stage to formally accept the nomination, the crowd erupted. It was not merely applause, but almost screams of joy. As we walked the halls of the convention, people would see Sam and shout to him. They wouldn't just say, "There's Sam." They would say, "There's our Sam."

To the people of Uganda, he is a national treasure. To the Rotarians of Africa, he represents validation of the importance of Rotary in Africa, and of Africa in Rotary. Sam was only the second Rotarian from Africa to be elected to the presidency of Rotary International, and he did not reach those heights alone. He brought the 30,000 dedicated and passionate Rotarians of Africa – and the 1.2 million members throughout the world.

By Olayinka Hakeem Babalola

Rotary Club of Trans Amadi, Port Harcourt, Nigeria; Director-elect, Rotary International

My first close encounter with Sam Owori occurred in 2010 during the governors-elect training seminar in Munyonyo, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda. Sam had given well-received opening remarks in which he outlined his vision for Rotary's growth in Africa. During the coffee break after his speech, he pulled me aside and asked, "Yinka, do you make sense out of my presentation?" I answered in the affirmative. The next evening, he asked whether I had yet thought about how his growth vision could be realized in my country, Nigeria. I wondered then why this "big man" of Rotary considered the opinion of a governor trainee to be important.

It only took a few more encounters until I had become infected with what was then characterized as the "Owori madness" but which I now embrace as the Owori Challenge to grow Rotary in Africa. Sam wanted to bolster our numbers so we could do more. 

Sam was a leader whose external calmness and ease belied his piercing vision and determination. He was a coach and mentor in a way I have come to describe as untraditional. I once broached the idea to him of honoring Arch Klumph Society inductees from our continent during a special African Day at The Rotary Foundation. He asked me, in a way I found exasperating at the time, to "go and give it a try" and walked away. I concluded that he either did not understand my proposal or thought it would not work. But I was greatly mistaken. A few months later, I received a surprising call asking me to work on a Nigeria Day. Sam thought we could do better than going for six or seven donors from the whole continent.

Others get that many donors from just one country, and so could we. It hadn't been lack of interest; it was just his way of getting me to take action to fit his vision.

Before Sam became a trustee of The Rotary Foundation, the general perception was that Africa was poor and so we shouldn't expect Foundation contributions from the continent. But Sam told people that while it is true the continent is poor, Rotarians on the continent are not. They can give their share.

Sam Owori speaks at the closing ceremony of the 2017 convention in Atlanta.

We owe Sam a debt. He led us, trained us, and guided us. Sam envisioned an RI Board that would always include African representation, and he grew the continent's membership to the point that for the first time our continent will be a Rotary zone of its own. We must work and deliver on our promises to him. We must meet the Sam Owori Challenge to grow Rotary in Africa. That is a debt I intend to pay, along with all Rotarians in Africa.

We've had only one African president in Rotary's history. So to have the second one was going to be a big deal. We all looked forward to it. I was going to be on the Board and have the privilege to serve with him. I was looking forward to the things we could do together for the good of Rotary and of our continent.

Someone told me that Sam left very big shoes to fill. I said we are not afraid of big shoes – coming from our part of the world, you know what to do to get big shoes to fit. The problem is if the shoe is too small. That is when you suffer.

Sam loved to smile with his face, his eyes, and his soul. May the smile never depart from his gentle soul as he rests in eternal peace.

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