Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, came in 2011 to speak at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, as part of the annual Town Hall Lecture Series, benefiting the Ringling College Library Association. He was one of five to speak that year — one more name to add to the extensive list of history’s leaders, opinion-shapers, movers and shakers who speak for the 33-year-old program that takes place from January through April.
Typically, the impressive crop of speakers follows a standard format: Each speaks for 40 minutes followed by a 20-minute Q&A, featuring audience-submitted questions. But Blair requested to speak for 20 minutes and have a 40-minute Q&A. Kathleen Weiner, Town Hall chairwoman at the time, was nervous that the flow would be thrown out of kilter.
Thinking a relaxing pedicure would help calm her anxiety, Weiner headed toward the nail salon to ease her mind. The tension subsided, but, then, she dropped her cell phone — the only line of communication with Tony Blair and his people — into the bubbly footbath. The loss of her phone made her unreachable until five minutes before stepping on stage to lead the Q&A. The lecture went just as smoothly as all of the others in the series.
“He was phenomenal. I really had nothing to worry about,” Weiner says, recalling one of her favorite memories.
Each year, there’s one woman responsible for contracting speakers and executing the program, and each chairwoman has more than a few stories to share.
“I could write a book,” says Olivia Thomas, 2010 lecture chairwoman. “And not just the year I chaired, but I could write a chapter on every single speaker I’ve ever seen.”
The committee women, many of whom became involved through Junior League, help with planning and details years before and after they chair the event.
The annual series began in 1981, with a group of dedicated women under the guidance of first Chairwoman Doris Stelzer.
Although the group originally consisted of non-working women, these days, most have full-time jobs on top of their full-time volunteer job as chairwoman.
For instance, Thomas is president and CEO of Safe Place Rape and Crisis Center. She chaired the 30th anniversary of the lecture series.
“When I was chair, I got a vitamin D deficiency because I never went outside,” Thomas laughs, but she’s not kidding.
She would spend all day at the computer working well into the night and on weekends planning the series. The highlight for her was bringing in former President Bill Clinton because he was surprisingly charming. After he spoke, it made it easier to bring in prominent figures for future lectures.
But one of Thomas’ favorite stories isn’t about a particular speaker; it’s about vending machine full of ice cream.
Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was speaking at the round-table media Q&A, but with the combination of his thick accent and loud vending machine, people were having trouble hearing.
“Kristine Nickel (2012 chairwoman) was motioning me to turn off the vending machine, so I’m crawling on my hands and knees to unplug it,” Thomas says. Then, Thomas went about her day until she received a call from Nickel that evening saying, “Olivia, we never plugged that vending machine back in.”
They both pictured melted ice cream pouring out and worried about how mad the Van Wezel staff would be at them. Thomas resorted to calling the front desk to tell someone they need to plug it back in. “It was like an anonymous bomb threat or something,” she laughs. But no one ever said anything about it.
Not all the stories are funny. Nickel, president and managing partner of Nickel Communications, had a what-am-I-going-to-do moment with speaker Bill O’Reilly at last year’s event.
It was 10 minutes before the media Q&A round table, and O’Reilly asked Nickel what members of the press were present. When she got to journalist Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times, O’Reilly became enraged. Deggans allegedly called O’Reilly a racist in a past encounter.
“Here’s this multimillion dollar TV personality pouting upstairs, saying he doesn’t want to do this press conference,” Nickel says. But, as it turns out, the two discussed their problems in front of everyone and reached reconciliation.
“Two weeks later, I’m surfing the TV and O’Reilly actually has Deggans on his show,” she says.
So far, with only one lecture under her belt and with four left to go, this year’s chairwoman, Stephanie Grosskreutz, doesn’t have many stories — yet. She began the planning process in the summer of 2011 and announced the 2013 series season at the last lecture of 2012. According to her, after 33 years, the process is a well-oiled machine. It’s each chairwoman’s duty to find a balance among the types of speakers for their year.
“You want a few recognizable names, then some that aren’t so recognizable,” she says, “Those are the ones people leave saying, ‘That was amazing!’” Grosskreutz says.
Of course, every year they make offers or put together a bucket list of speakers the group would love to have, which right now includes: Hillary Clinton, Bono and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.
The most difficult aspect of successfully executing the program is arranging the speakers’ contracts. Since this year’s lectures began Jan. 15, the stress of contracting is over and it is easier for Grosskreutz to enjoy the series.
“It’s very exciting,” Grosskreutz says. “Of course, every night I say a little prayer that all of my speakers stay healthy!”
And if the previous chairwomen’s stories are any indication, Grosskreutz will be a wealth of stories come the last lecture, which will also be when the 2014 chairman, Jay Logan, makes his series announcement and RCLA history as the first male to chair the Town Hall lectures.
IF YOU GO
Dr. Robert Gates: Tuesday, Feb. 5
Dr. Benjamin Carson: Wednesday, Feb. 27
Capt. Mark Kelly: Monday, March 11
Tom Brokaw: Monday, April 8
When: 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 North Tamiami Trail
Cost: $200 to $600 per subscription
Info: Call 925-1343 or visit rclassociation.org
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