James L. Lacy, a past Rotary International president who was passionate about improving the lives of children and worked tirelessly to raise funds for Rotary’s polio eradication efforts, has died at the age of 92.
Lacy, a member of the Rotary Club of Cookeville, Tennessee, USA, for 53 years, served as RI president in 1998-99. His presidential theme, Follow Your Rotary Dream, urged members to turn their dreams into action to address community concerns, particularly the needs of children.
“I wanted to make it personal. I wanted an active theme, something to challenge Rotarians,” he explained in a profile that year in The Rotarian (now Rotary magazine). “I started to think about how Rotary and The Rotary Foundation started with a dream. A dream is something that comes from the heart, and you make happen with your hands. Through action, you make your dreams come true.”
During an address at the 1999 Rotary International Convention in Singapore, he challenged Rotarians to channel their caring into the lives of society’s most valuable, yet most vulnerable, members: our children.
“For me, a Rotary dream fulfilled is seeing children who were suffering become happy and healthy, their lives filled with new opportunities. I realized I could not fulfill this dream on my own, but I knew that with all of us working together — side by side, with hands and heart — we could begin to make this dream come true.”
Lacy was a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives 1967-70. He served on Rotary’s Polio Eradication Advocacy Task Force for the United States from 2000 to 2017, including serving as chair (2006-17) and vice chair (2001-06), and he was an advocate for government support for polio eradication before that. He played a critical role in securing more than $2.6 billion in U.S. funding for polio eradication. In 1997, he participated in a National Immunization Day in India, an event that vaccinated more than 127 million children. He was honored as a PolioPlus Pioneer in 2018 for his founding role in the program and his ongoing support.
“Jim Lacy was an advocate for children,” recalls John F. Germ, a fellow Tennessean who served as Rotary International president in 2016-17. “He initiated the Children’s Opportunity Grants program and was extremely active in polio eradication. James was instrumental in getting the program started.”
Lacy joined the Rotary Club of Cookeville in 1964 at age 34. According to his magazine profile, he left the club because there were few members in his age group but was persuaded to return not long after. The club invited other professionals his age to join and involved them in service projects. Lacy led a Group Study Exchange trip to England in 1977-78 that “opened [his] eyes to the internationality of Rotary” and became one of his fondest memories. He also served as president of his club in 1978-79.
He credited his parents with instilling in him a love of community service. “[They] always taught me to share with those who are less fortunate,” he told The Rotarian. “I have always felt empathy for those in need. My parents engrained in me that with opportunities, you also have obligations. I have always enjoyed volunteer work and this feeling has led to my many years of service in Rotary.”
In addition to RI president, Lacy served as RI director, Rotary Foundation trustee and trustee chair, district governor, and International Assembly moderator. He received The Rotary Foundation’s Citation for Meritorious Service for his support of educational and humanitarian programs, as well as its Distinguished Service Award and RI’s Service Above Self Award. He and his spouse, Claudine, are Major Donors.
Lacy was the owner and chair of a confection company. In 1986 he bought Gilliam Candy Brands Inc. in Paducah, Kentucky. He expanded it by buying other candy manufacturing plants in Kentucky as well as Georgia, Kansas, and New York. Before that, he was president of an investment firm and a successful real estate developer. He also served in the military from 1952 to 1954.
In the community, Lacy coached children’s baseball for 17 years, beginning with his son’s team in 1961 but continuing long after his son outgrew the team. He believed that baseball helps youngsters build self-confidence, teamwork, and communication skills. The Lacys were also longtime members of the Presbyterian Church.
In 2005, the Rotary Club of Cookeville established the James L. & Claudine Lacy Children’s Fund to enable the Putnam County school system to provide clothes, shoes, and other necessities to students in need. The club named the fund in recognition of Lacy’s service as RI president and his dedication to improving the lives of children around the world.
James L. Lacy is survived by his wife of 74 years, Claudine; his son, Bill, and daughter-in-law, Susie, of Olathe, Kansas; brother, Alvin, and his wife, Barbara, of Sparta, Tennessee; and sister-in-law, Rowena Lacy, of Hickory, North Carolina. Memorial contributions may be made to Cookeville Rotary Club, P.O. Box 1005, Cookeville, TN 38503, or Cookeville First Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 565 E 10th Street, Cookeville, TN 38501.