Home >> Features >> Profile
Paul Palazzolo ponders his priceless post
By Dan Naumovich

When reflecting upon the past year as the president of Kiwanis International, Paul Palazzolo said his term in office went just as others had predicted.

"Past presidents had told me, but I didn't realize how true it is: You would not trade the experience for a million dollars, and you would not take a million dollars to do it again," he said.

Directing the third-largest service organization in the world - Kiwanis has more than 8,000 local clubs in 96 countries - was an exhausting task, even for a guy who's been giving his time and energy as a member for more than 25 years.

"The role of the international president is to lead the volunteer structure and to grow the organization and provide more service," Palazzolo said. "The whole reason for that is to help local clubs be the best that they can be."

Anyone who has ever been responsible for motivating volunteers knows what a difficult task that can be. While most Kiwanis work is carried out at the local level, Palazzolo was charged with rallying the troops for the kickoff of the organization's second world-wide project.

"This project is going to bring all of our clubs, all 600,000 members together to raise $110 million to fight maternal and neonatal tetanus," he said.

Kiwanis is partnering with UNICEF to vaccinate mothers against the infection, which is often fatal to newborns when contracted during childbirth.

"It takes seven days for the child to die. But during that time frame it's the worst possible death an infant can endure," he said of the disease that reportedly kills one newborn every nine minutes.

The project was unveiled at the Kiwanis International Convention in Las Vegas this past June, where the actress Tea Leoni was introduced as the spokesperson.

"She was there to help us roll it out, and she'll be with us for the duration of the project. It will probably take about six years to raise that $110 million," he said.

Palazzolo is a firm believer in the power of celebrity (he invited Bob Hope to speak at his eighth-grade graduation and still has Hope's letter of regret.) As the Kiwanis president he sought to use that power to advance the cause and inspire volunteers.

In addition to Leoni, the convention featured an appearance by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"I really pushed hard to get him as keynote speaker. When I first started with Kiwanis we had Ronald Reagan as speaker, and we always had really top-notch people. Then we kind of slipped away from that, and I said we have to resurrect that," he said.

When it came to the entertainment, Palazzolo also reached for the stars. Opting for a comedian, he decided that Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld were the only two with big enough names and whose acts would translate to an international audience.

"Leno said yes and was very kind to us on his price. I had the chance to introduce him. He made fun of me a little bit. And he was a huge hit," he said.

Toward the end of a 90-minute set of "fall on the floor funny" material, Leno asked Palazzolo's 8-year-old son, Anthony, to join him on stage where the two engaged in a little Q&A, similar to what Art Linkletter used to do on "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

"It was hilarious," he said, noting that his son held up his half of the act.

Anthony - along with his mom, Suanne and sister, Maria - was also present during a visit to the Vatican. One of the honors bestowed upon the Kiwanis president is an audience with the Pope.

"Meeting Pope Benedict was a highlight. Obviously, for someone like me who was born and raised in the Catholic faith," he said.

Palazzolo, who serves as the Sangamon County auditor, was relatively young when elected by Kiwanis members in 2007 to serve as vice president of the international organization, a position that automatically elevated him to president-elect and then president in the subsequent two years. The 44-year-old credits his rise through the ranks to his long-time association with the group and previous leadership positions.

As a freshman at Griffin High School in 1984 he joined the Key Club, the Kiwanis program for high school students. By his senior year he was serving as the governor of the club's Illinois and eastern Iowa district.

He continued his involvement through college and into his professional career. In 1994, he was again elected district governor, this time for the parent organization.

"I had a head start on knowing the people I'd be working with by being in that situation," he said.

Now that Palazzolo's tenure at the top of the volunteer structure is nearing completion, he said that his responsibilities on the international level will come to an abrupt end.

"You go from peak activity to zero," he said.

He'll serve one more year on the international board as past president, but his focus now will return to the local level.

He serves as an adviser to Key Club members at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, and he'll continue to work with his fellow Kiwanis members in raising $60,000 to build an accessible playground at Southwind Park (the group has already met half its goal and turned over the proceeds to the Springfield Park District.)

"You do what you can to help clubs grow. You have to do service locally and have fun while you're doing it," he said.

Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )

Stay connected

Twitter Facebook
Copyright ©  GateHouse Media, Inc. Some Rights Reserved.
Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Original content available for non-commercial use
under a Creative Commons license,
except where noted.