Three Taps of the Gavel closing the 150th Assembly
I confess to you that I will never fully have my composure for this address when I have to follow Joshua Stafford, the Massey Organ and Largo. Will you join me in thanking him and all these incredible musicians this evening.
I also, in a very special way, want to lift up the nearly four decades that Keith Schmitt has managed the Chautauqua Amphitheater. This is Keith’s last night doing so and the last event that will be under his direction. I’d like to ask Keith to join me on stage so we can recognize him and thank him.
For all who caught The Chautauquan Daily’s presentation of the title of this evening’s Three Taps of the Gavel address, I would understand if you thought one of two things had happened: the Daily had made a major editorial mistake, or at the conclusion of Week Nine, I was so sleep deprived that I had skipped over our sesquicentennial in a Rip Van Winkle kind of state. Let me put your minds at ease: neither is the case. The title of my reflection is, indeed, “Chautauqua’s Bicentennial.”
Bestor Cram, grandson to one of Chautauqua’s longest-serving Presidents, Arthur Bestor, recently gifted me one of President Bestor’s personal books: The Chautauquan Weekly, 1921–22, which chronicles the life of Chautauqua just over 100 years ago. I have been pouring over it ever since, looking at what life was like for our beloved Chautauqua in those days. And I assure you that it’s not because the first headline from Thursday, September 1, 1921, is titled “Mr. Bestor’s Vacation,” in which President Bestor is granted a five-month sabbatical after his seventh summer.
In 1921, the “Community Library” was in the Post Office building, and Chautauqua was adding books to it. In the October issue, under the headline of “Season Extension,” it appears that there was some consternation about the Institution’s management. The Chautauquan Weekly reports, “The files indicate that possibly during the Comprehensive Plan Campaign in the season of 1919, the Cottage owners and others vitally interested in the life and prosperity of Chautauqua became more familiar with the Institution financial status than ever before. Those of us who are so interested should make it a point to become well versed in the facts so that the ill-advised may be corrected in their misstatements.”
January 1922 had Chautauqua seeking new and better accommodations, saying “the number of houses that have been erected at Chautauqua during the last 10 years have been negligible as compared to the increasing demand.” The Donald Ross Golf Course was being constructed, citing the need for new and different activities to retain the interest of current and future Chautauquans.
In March 1922, Prof. H. Augustine Smith, director of music at Chautauqua, called for the creation of a Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Prior to this, the New York Symphony Orchestra was the resident orchestra for six weeks of Chautauqua entertainment. New York would be replaced, but by the Detroit Symphony. In the same issue, a story reports that President Bestor has returned from his sabbatical to attend the Board of Trustees annual meeting held in Lake Placid, New York, after which he returned to Chautauqua’s non-summer offices in New York City to plan for the 1923 Assembly.
It may surprise you, as it did me, that in a talk that year before the Wednesday Club of St. Louis, Mrs. Mary B. Durcorron holds up Chautauqua’s THREE pillars: education, religion and recreation. The arts were not yet seen as one.
So, what can we draw from these pages and these reflections of the Chautauqua of yesteryear? Throughout all the pages of President Bestor’s book, we see a Chautauqua evolving and asking questions about its future. We see Chautauquans wrestling with what might change if the Institution is to remain a vibrant force for the future. And so the title of “Chautauqua’s Bicentennial” is purposeful, as I find myself tonight grateful that when we next convene, we will celebrate our 150th birthday. And celebrate we will. And we will have so much about which to be grateful.
But just as important after this past summer is the central question about what we must do in our time to prepare Chautauqua for its second century. What do we need to be doing now to ready Chautauqua for the future — for our children and our grandchildren, and for a group who will come here as adult pilgrims seeking the mystery and magic of a place like Chautauqua?
I opened our Summer Assembly inviting us to be curious and not judgmental. I hope that our programming allowed for the former even if our interactions may sometimes have eluded the latter. I grow more deeply concerned that the divides of the outside world have made their way here and into other sacred spaces, showing up as a disposition of combat versus collegiality; demands versus dialogue. And, if that is to be the way of the world moving forward, what is Chautauqua’s role?
As we have struggled this summer with disagreements and, in some disappointing cases, disagreeableness, I found myself reflecting on advice I received from our 150th Anniversary Advisory Committee. This is a small group of Chautauquans we convened last year to give some advance thought to how our 150th Anniversary should manifest itself. This group helped us to conceive our 150th Anniversary theme, which we share with you tonight: The Seasons and Stories of Chautauqua. But the group also made it very clear that they think the 150th Anniversary needs to reflect a significant focus on the youth of Chautauqua — their experiences and their insights about what Chautauqua is and needs to be for them and for their future selves. I want to thank that advisory group — led by George Snyder and Anita Lin, for this prescient and selfless advice.
This group of adults spent only a small portion of their time in advisement talking about what “they” wanted to see happen during our anniversary season. They dedicated significant time and attention to repeatedly asking the question: What’s in this anniversary for Chautauqua’s young people?
And, isn’t that the precise question we should be asking as we consider every step in our continuing evolution? What is in this decision for those who will take our handoff — those who will be sitting here 50 years from now, perhaps reading this speech and other messages that I and others in this community have crafted. They will likely be negotiating some of the same structural challenges and disagreements we face today. But what will they be thankful for in regard to decisions and investments we are making today that had them and their needs and desires in mind?
I hope they will be able to say the following:
- I hope they can say: When the world was turning to division and divisiveness as a manipulation strategy, Chautauqua leaned into its strength as a place where engaged dialogue rules the day; and it remains a place where diverse people come to seek knowledge and resolution; reconciliation and renewal.
- I hope they will say: We are grateful that when this community was approaching its 150th Anniversary, Chautauqua invested deeply in caring for Chautauqua Lake because it is now a thriving ecosystem that stands as a model for freshwater preservation the world over and continues to be a place where families gather and make memories.
- I hope they will recall with gratitude that their predecessors recognized the gem that is the Athenaeum Hotel, and they embarked upon a multi-decade strategy to restore this critical piece of Chautauqua’s heritage that continues to serve as the Summer Assembly’s welcome mat for new visitors and returning visitors alike.
- I hope they will celebrate this as a time when Chautauqua accessed what it most needed for its students and artists and creators and invested in the facilities and resources for the creators of tomorrow.
- I hope they will remember that when so many others turned away from a commitment to religion that we discovered a sense of renewal and purpose, not only in our ancient forms of prayer but in ways that made space for their own spiritual journeys, for their own seeking, and for interfaith understanding.
- I hope they will remember this time as a moment when Chautauqua didn’t turn inward but rather worked to harness the tremendous goodness that happens here and beyond here under the name of Chautauqua as a salve to the wounds of society, that we reclaimed what has always been ours and a part of our history: that we must both conduct the magic of our Summer Assembly but that our mission does not end when I, my predecessors and successors tap the gavel three times.
- I hope they might look back to this summer and lift up our Week Nine speaker Shahidul Alam’s plea that we matter, that our choices matter, that simply soaking in a Chautauqua summer is not enough, that we must take all in we’ve learned here and act as agents for the future we want to see. Surely, if Dr. Alam risked being arrested for speaking his truth at Chautauqua, we can use this time to declare that our Chautauqua way of life can be a part of a global response. I hope tomorrow’s Chautauquans will look back and see that we were brave enough to do so.
These are my core hopes for Chautauqua’s Bicentennial and they, therefore, are among our core areas of focus as we approach the Sesquicentennial. I look forward to remaining in dialogue with all members of this community in engineering our ongoing evolution, in service to our mission to explore the best in human values and the enrichment of life, and in view of the needs and aspirations of those who have not yet discovered Chautauqua, and those that will follow us.
I leave you with one final inspiration; one that was sparked by a simple yard sign installed near the Hall of Philosophy, but that calls us to embrace our arts pillar that now stands equal with our historical education, recreation, and religion pillars, in seeking and finding answers to the challenges of our time.
One of our Week Two Chautauqua Lecture Series speakers, NPR’s Scott Simon, offered a tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti shortly after the poet passed away in February of 2021. Simon said:
When Ferlinghetti was 80 years old, he wrote a long string of verses called “What Is Poetry?” so he would never have to address the question again. Here are some of his answers: “Poetry is news from the frontiers of consciousness. Poetry is what we would cry out upon awakening in a dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life. Poetry is white knights and mouths of desire. Poetry is the street talk of angels and devils.1
Ferlinghetti’s answer is a call for us to trust the arts, education, recreation and religion as facilitators of our capabilities; as bridges to what’s next — and the “nexts” yet to be imagined.
I tap the gavel three times.
Chautauqua 2023 gives way to a very special birthday and important questions for years after that.
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