Mark McDermott

Morton is Manhattan Beach Rotarian of the Year

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Gerry Morton was named Rotarian of the Year. Photo courtesy Manhattan Beach Rotary Club

by Mark McDermott

Gerry Morton never set out to be a Rotarian. If you’d asked him at the beginning of his entrepreneurial career what a Rotarian was, in fact, he may have yawned.

Morton made his first fortune at the turn of this century, only a few years after graduating from the University of Arizona. In 2001, at the age of 28, he returned to his native Manhattan Beach with more than $4.5 million in stock and commissions after working with a Silicon Valley startup. He subsequently lost most that first fortune when the stock market crashed, but then clawed his way back, first through a series of real estate deals and, later, founding two nutritional drink companies. The experience taught him a lesson: don’t take anything for granted.

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“Not people, not possessions, not experiences. Nothing,” he said in a presentation given to young entrepreneurs two years ago.

It was this ethos, along with his experience as an Eagle Scout, that instilled in Morton the value of serving others. Eight years ago, Patrick Donahue, a fellow member of the Wall-Nuts, a running group that meets on Walnut Ave. every Sunday morning, told Morton he’d make a great Rotarian. Morton wasn’t quite sure what to think until he attended his first meeting.

“Definitely a lot of people’s perception is it’s going to be a grandfather’s club, and then they come and are genuinely surprised when they walk into the Manhattan Beach Rotary club and see energy and vitality and enthusiasm,” Morton said. “It’s not what you might think it is.”

The Rotary Club is indeed old —  it was founded 113 years ago — but in time of increasing civic disengagement its relevance has never been greater. The club brings together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian services, encourage ethical standards in all vocations and advance goodwill globally. There are over 34,000 Rotary Clubs worldwide, with 1.2 million members.

The local club, which meets for breakfast every Monday morning, has 120 members. Among their service projects, this year was aiding hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico; $16,000 was raised, and the club installed water purification systems at several sites, including an orphanage and a small village.

Mark Burton, who served as the local Rotary president this year, asked a former president Dan Cavanaugh what the key to successful club programming was for the weekly meetings. “He said three things,” Burton recalled. “Speakers, speakers, and speakers.’ So I thought, it’s got to be Gerry.”

Morton is a busy man. In addition to his work, he served the last four years as the president and chairman of the Boy Scouts of Greater LA organization, which includes 26,000 youth and 11,000 adult volunteers. But when Burton asked him to serve as Rotary COO and director of programming, he immediately said yes. “He didn’t hesitate,” Burton said. “You don’t get that answer very often. He’s always so positive.”  

Morton took on the task with his characteristic professional vigor. He lined up an extraordinary group of speakers, including Congressman Ted Lieu, LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, State Senator Ben Allen, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, and local residents MBPD Chief Derrick Abell, Skechers CEO Michael Greenberg, Gensler CEO Andy Cohen, and motivational speaker Jeff Barnes (who speaks on the wisdom of Walt Disney). He also conducted an online survey of members to mine them for their own stories and conducted a series of  “craft talks” — basically master classes from the varied professions of the Rotarians themselves — that turned out to be revelatory.

“Those craft talks from members ended up being some of the best programs of the year,” Morton said. “It’s kind of a testimony to how sometimes the goal you are seeking is right there in front of you all along —  we’ve got some of the most incredible, dynamic people you could ever hope to know.”

“It also speaks to the community we live in —  how close-knit it is and what special people we have in our own backyard. You can drive a three wood anywhere in town and get 100 people who are world class at what they do. This is what we have here in Manhattan Beach.”

The Rotarians, Morton said, attract a truly special kind of person —  those to whom serving others is a core value. Such service is its own reward, he said.

“That’s the counterintuitive part that a lot of people don’t think about —  the person doing the serving is the one really benefiting,” Morton said. “The people being served to get some value, but what’s really valuable is the psychic income for the person doing the serving. It’s a classic win-win: you are helping someone, but really helping yourself more than anyone because of how it feels to make the world just a little bit better.”

Morton said the MB Rotary is different than most because of its Monday morning breakfast meeting times; most clubs meet for lunch. The early meetings allow for a younger, more “career ascendent” membership, he said.

“I think a lot of people look at it in a similar way to how people look at church —   that weekly connection is a way to kind of get yourself reset and off on the right foot with positive energy, and just a good vibe not only for the day but the whole week,” Morton said.

The most underrated quality of being a Rotarian, Morton said, is exactly the opposite of the perception may be.

“I really don’t think people realize how much fun we are as a group,” Morton said. “People hear ‘Rotary’ and think it’s a bunch of old guys sitting around playing Parcheesi or something. It couldn’t be further from the truth. These are some of the funniest, most energetic people you have ever met.”

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