It’s a long way from a farm in Mount Cotton, Australia, to South Africa, but a 1973 trip to the country kicked off an even longer journey for Dan Holzapfel. It was there that he first became aware of the terrible toll of polio and committed to doing what he could to help stamp it out. Fifty years later, in the year he turned 100, Holzapfel is one of the most significant contributors to Rotary’s polio eradication effort, donating about US$2.5 million to the cause.
“When I saw the suffering of children with polio in South Africa, it made me realize I had to do something about it,” he says. “To see the way they suffered, the way they would crawl around on hands and knees, it was shocking. It really opened my eyes.”
Holzapfel left school at age 11 to work on his family's tomato farm in the Redlands area near Brisbane, Australia. An active Rotarian for 48 years, he's attended dozens of conventions all over the world, but is still a hometown boy at heart.
"He's very proud of the history of the Redlands. He's very proud of his origins," his friend Bruce Allen says. "He was born there and raised there, he worked there, and he'll die there. That's all he ever wanted, was to be in his own particular patch."
Holzapfel has found all sorts of ways to help his community, from serving on the local government council to volunteering with the Queensland Ambulance Service. He's also given AU$100,000 to the Redland Foundation to provide transitional housing for families affected by domestic violence. He even set up a fund in 2018 for small businesses in the area that provided grants of AU$25,000 for seed capital. His giving goes beyond the local level too: He's a Diamond Supporter of ShelterBox Australia.
While the rural area surrounding his family's land was developed over time, Holzapfel remained dedicated to the farming life. He continued gardening into his mid-80s, maintaining a few potato and pumpkin patches. In the Redland Museum, to which he's a significant donor, the Dan Holzapfel Farm Pavilion documents the Redlands' history of agriculture. Many of the exhibits date from the early to mid-20th century, when Holzapfel was young and the Redlands was known as "Brisbane's salad bowl."
It's no wonder Holzapfel was designated the Redlands' 2018 Citizen of the Year. There's even a park named after him.
"He's a very hardworking, downright, forthright person," Allen says. "The strongest swearword I ever heard him use was 'darn.' He's hard-nosed — I've seen the hard side of him — but he's a very giving person."
Holzapfel says turning 100 was no different than any other birthday, though his Rotary friends and King Charles III of the United Kingdom disagreed. The friends threw Holzapfel a party on 1 May, and the king sent an official letter of congratulations. At the party, Redland City Mayor Karen Williams spoke emotionally about Holzapfel's dedication to his community and the world.
"I feel very humbled and honored to be here," she told the Redland City News. "There are children out there who can walk because of him. There are domestic violence victims who have somewhere safe to live because of him.
"Dan is the sort of person we should all aspire to be. He is a living legend."
This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.
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