By John Rezek
The Rotarian -- July 2013

With his congenial manner and his inclination to keep things simple, Ron Burton has a natural ability to put people at ease. But don’t let the easygoing demeanor of Rotary International’s new president lull you into thinking that he doesn’t get serious when it’s time for business.

“If you ask my opinion, you’re going to get it,” Burton says, his neighborly look morphing into a solemn gaze. “When I feel strongly about something, I will argue like crazy for my position. I suppose that’s sort of an ego thing, but if I discern that someone has a vested interest or may be looking at a personal economic benefit, I have a simple suggestion: Apply The Four-Way Test.”

(Ron Burton made his mark on his alma mater, The University of Oklahoma, where he served as president of the school's foundation for nearly three decades. Photo by Monika Lozinska/Rotary International)

An uncompromising sense of ethics may be the only personal quality that the former president of the University of Oklahoma Foundation Inc. is willing to wear on his sleeve. “Like most people, I don’t like to be told I’m wrong,” he says. “But I can be convinced that there’s another way to look at something, and sometimes I’ll change my mind. If it’s an ethical issue, though, you’re not going to tell me I’m wrong. It’s not going to happen. I’ve dealt with too many people over the years who wanted to misuse funds. I’ve looked them in the eye and said, ‘I’m not going to jail for you or anyone else.’”

Burton says most of his career success came from being “in the right place at the right time.” It started with growing up in a small town (Duncan, Okla., USA) in the postwar era and having a chance to operate his own business at age 13. “Delivering newspapers was a business back then,” he says, recalling his days as a Duncan Banner carrier. “You had to buy your papers, buy your rubber bands, buy your bag; you had to wait for the papers, roll them, and deliver them; you had to collect, you had to pay your bill. Anything left over was yours.”

A few years later, as a student at the University of Oklahoma in the late ΚΌ60s, Burton worked part time in the accounting office. Between graduation and law school, he was hired to replace a close friend at the office who had been drafted into the military. (Burton did his own military service through advanced ROTC and the National Guard.)

“I ended up being the No. 2 accountant for the University of Oklahoma a week after I got out of school,” he says. He continued in the job during his first year in law school, but soon was recommended to replace the outgoing treasurer of the University of Oklahoma Foundation. “When I graduated, my boss, who was a past governor of our Rotary district, asked me to stay on, with the idea that I might be selected to succeed him when he retired. I took over his position as president in 1978 and retired in 2007. That’s my career at Oklahoma – storybook, really.”

When it came to meeting his future wife, Jetta, Burton was initially in the right place, but his timing was a bit off. Both charter members of the baby boom generation, they were born in the same year and at the same overcrowded hospital, where dresser drawers substituted for basinets. But he arrived three months ahead of her. They had mutual friends growing up and finally met in high school, where they were members of the band. He was a junior and played trombone. She was a sophomore and played bassoon. Their first date was 18 September 1962. They tied the knot in college.

After 45 years of marriage, with a daughter, a son, and three grandchildren, Burton emphasizes that their life together has been a partnership, especially when it comes to Rotary.

“Jetta is my best critic,” says Burton, a member of the Rotary Club of Norman. “She will level with me, on whether I made a natural and believable presentation – on all sorts of things. She’s been supportive all along the way, from presidents-elect training seminars to district assemblies and conferences. If she had not supported me in this, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The vital role of the family in Rotary is at the core of Burton’s beliefs. “When we talk about the family of Rotary, I know public relations is a part of that,” he says. “But to me, it really is the family of Rotary. If you get your own family involved in this, with your own heart, and it expands to the world, that’s the family of Rotary – that’s community service.”

Throughout his time in Rotary, especially during this past year of traveling and meeting Rotarians from various countries, that perspective has helped Burton appreciate the diversity and ever-growing potential of the organization. “Speaking to Rotarians from around the world has made me more tolerant of different points of view,” he says. “You learn that there is another way to do things, that there are differences in cultures and differences in individuals. But the basic tenets come through for all of us, no matter where we are. I’d like to think there are no regional differences in the integrity aspect of the organization, but I believe we may need to do a better job of working on that and highlighting it.”

Burton is firm in his view of the relationship between Rotary International and Rotarians. “Rotary International is nothing more than an association of Rotary clubs, and the Secretariat is here to serve those clubs,” he says. “Rotary International’s job is to support the clubs, and Rotarians are the ones who do things. We need to keep that in mind. The Secretariat is a sacred place, and it should be respected, just like the office of the president. Our job is to inspire people, to act as an inspirational pivot point to bring the senior leadership in, to serve those clubs and districts so that we can make things happen. But Rotary International is not an end in itself.”

Burton is enthusiastic about the success of his “first class” campaign, which aims to make the 2013-14 class of Rotary leaders the first in which every district governor and club president contributes to The Rotary Foundation. “We’ve already raised $3.6 million, and we’ve only got 8,128 club presidents so far,” he says. “All the governors are in, for the first time in history.”

Success in fundraising was a hallmark of Burton’s three decades of service at the University of Oklahoma Foundation. During his tenure, he notes, the foundation’s assets grew from $17.5 million to $890 million. But that achievement is not on the short list of his proudest accomplishments.

“There are two things I take great pride in,” he says. “One is that there was never a penny out of place – every single cent was always accounted for. The other is that, more than five years after I’ve left, except for subsequent retirements, everyone who was working for me is still there. I think that’s a great testament that I did something right.”

The management style that led to that success is unlikely to change much, but Burton, whose reading pleasure runs toward biographies of American presidents, believes that his experience watching and working with past Rotary presidents will help him hone an effective approach.

“I don’t want to leave anyone out, but some of them do stick out in my mind,” he says. “Bill Boyd had a big impact on me – he’s a great communicator. I learned a lot about tolerance from Carlo Ravizza. Jim Lacy ran a great meeting and was businesslike in his approach. Jon Majiyagbe is a great role model as a gentle person with a steady manner. And then there’s Frank Devlyn. I’ll tell you what: If you don’t like Frank Devlyn, I don’t like you. It’s that simple.”

Seeing and expressing things in simple, straightforward terms is one of Burton’s most apparent strengths. “If I had one wish for the American people,” he says, “it’s that they could go to one of the impoverished countries that Rotarians do so much work in and see how good we have it here.”

For Burton, there’s no doubt about how good he’s had it. “I’ve had a blessed life,” he says. “I had a great family life growing up, and I look at our kids and our grandkids, and I think they’ve done pretty well too. You worry about things, of course, and you want the best for your family. I think Rotary gives me an opportunity to help make this world a little bit better and help give others a better life – not only my grandkids but other people’s grandkids too.”

A year from now, Burton will look back and measure his success by a standard that is pure Oklahoma: “At the end of the day, I hope to leave the woodpile just a little higher.”