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From Gen. John F. Kelly to Jane Pauley, Town Hall continues a robust Fresno tradition

When the Fresno Arts Council presented its annual Horizon Awards last October, it selected a worthy recipient for its Business Award: the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall speaker series. It is one of the gems of the local cultural scene.

Pictured above: John F. Kelly won’t discuss President Trump by name.

Four speakers remain in the 2019-20 season. John F. Kelly, former chief of staff for President Trump, speaks at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15, at the Saroyan Theatre. He is followed in the lineup by:

• Science writer Rebecca Skloot, Feb. 12: She will illuminate the intersections of scientific progress and morality, bringing public attention to vital bioethical issues.


Are you a member of The Munro Review? Win a pair of tickets to hear Gen. John F. Kelly speak at San Joaquin Valley Town Hall

• Forestry scientist Paul Hessburg, March 18: He will discuss the causes, impacts and implications of the mega-wildfires currently plaguing the western United States.

Jane Pauley, April 15: The noted former television anchor will share stories from her life experiences including breaking into journalism, balancing career and family, living with bi-polar illness, and reinventing her career after the age of 65.

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One of the great things about Town Hall is the way it represents both the old and the new. Founded 83 seasons ago as a way for “housewives” to expand their scholarly horizons, it also helped connect Fresno to the larger intellectual currents of the time during an era in which digital immediacy didn’t exist and geographical distances seemed to loom larger. A lecture series bringing in big names was one of the things that “real cities” did. Now, in an age of instant access to more opinions and discourse than a person could possibly absorb, Town Hall offers a way to cut through the noise and experience a source live.

Lynn Baldwin, president of Town Hall.

I talked with Lynn Baldwin, current president of Town Hall, about accepting the Horizon Award and why she’s devoted so much of her time over the years to the organization.

Q: In an era of online TED talks and instant on-demand everything, you’re still a fan of live, in-person lectures. Why?

A: A live Town Hall lecture experience is as much a social event as it is an intellectual experience.

There is a camaraderie about Town Hall. You see familiar faces in the lobby at each lecture. You chat over a homemade cookie and coffee. After the lecture you get to discuss its contents with those same people. It is different from watching the speaker on a screen, where you might not get to discuss this shared experience right afterwards. Likewise, many electronic lectures (i.e. TED talks) do not publish audience Q&As, which can be very insightful.

Q: You got hooked on Town Hall after your first visit. Who was the speaker?

A: My first speaker was Jeffrey Toobin (longtime legal analyst for the New Yorker and CNN). I was mesmerized by his ability to so clearly articulate a history of the Supreme Court. I soon found that I did NOT have to be interested in the topic of a lecture in advance to find it thrilling during the experience. Platon — a famous portrait photographer — really drove that lesson home. He is perhaps my favorite speaker ever.

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Former labor secretary Robert Reich.

Q: What other speakers have moved you?

A: Robert Reich, who made me begin to think seriously about the rising problem of income inequality. From the science sector: Alex Fillipanko from Berkley, a cosmologist who studies dark energy from black holes in the universe.

One other speaker who resonated with me was Richard Rodriguez. He spoke so movingly about the pain of assimilating to American culture, of giving up his Mexican identity and language, but also of what he gained in doing so.

Q: Fresno’s Town Hall is non-profit, while many other versions of Town Hall in other cities are for-profit organizations. What’s the advantage of doing it Fresno’s way?

A: For one thing, we can’t change now — we have been non-profit from our inception and have accepted endowment funds and sought support from community members on the basis of being non-profit. We also build community support in being able to bring students to our lectures for free — were we a for-profit series we wouldn’t be able to do this. I think being non-profit also allows us the freedom to choose a variety of speakers including those little known but often fascinating people who are beginning to make a name with interesting new ideas and research. We do walk a tight-rope, because we also need big name well-known speakers to attract new audience members. But the fundamental advantage to remaining non-profit is that it allows us to keep the high-mined goals of the founders of Town Hall alive — to add to the intellectual and cultural life to this agricultural city. I think being non-profit still allows us to keep this goal front and center.

Q: You accepted a Horizon Award from the Fresno Arts Council on behalf of Town Hall in October. What was that evening like?

A: It was a well orchestrated, very professional evening with talented and interesting nominees that I got to know. It was an honor for Valley Town Hall to be nominated and recognized by the Fresno Arts Council. We appreciated all the work they did to make it a memorable evening. The handmade vase award was very special and the recognition documents from state and city officials really elevated the evening and award. We will be sure to promote this event in the future. More attendees are needed to recognize the honored recipients.

Q: Even when you bring in a speaker from the world of politics, he or she is supposed to stay away from promoting a political agenda. Have speakers ever gotten caught up in the moment and forgotten the parameters?

A: Yes. That does happen from time to time and it is never fun for us. We appreciate it when speakers can separate their personal views from their professional expertise and do their best to inform rather than inculcate from the podium.

When this happens this is painful, because we always stress that we are a non-partisan group. Right now this makes it difficult to choose speakers because everything seems to have a partisan tinge to it!


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Q: This would be a good time to remind people that your next speaker was recently at the center of U.S politics: Gen. John F. Kelly, who served as White House Chief of Staff for President Trump. What do you expect Gen. Kelly to talk about?

A: No. 1, he will not bash nor discuss Trump by name, only how he worked within the system. He will be explaining his overall position and how he dealt with difficult decisions and topics within our political system. He will give us a history lesson on how America works with and helps other countries and/or tries to do so. It will be a very eye-opening discussion.

Q: Speed question: Instead of three wishes, a genie gives you the chance to invite any three speakers in the world, regardless of cost. Who are the first three who come to mind?

A: That is a hard question, because there are so many topics and speakers we would want to learn more from if price was not an issue. However, the top few would be Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Tom Hanks and Bill and Melinda Gates,

Q: How much do you think those three would cost altogether?

A: $700,000 to $1 million. This may be on the conservative side. People would be surprised at how much speakers cost — and when they are already famous and already millionaires, the money is not an incentive, and they can ask for and get astronomical fees.

Q: Town Hall aims for a variety of speakers each season. What topics do you aim for? How does the selection process work?

A: We aim for speakers who will educate, inform and entertain. That is our mission. Each year our committee chairs evaluate hundreds of speakers so that our committee can evaluate dozens of speakers. Each set of chairs runs the process slightly differently from those who came before them. Often the chairs have a topic or two that they want to see on the list and go about selecting speakers in those categories. The remaining speakers are chosen based upon audience recommendations, committee recommendations, and agent recommendations. It is a very time-consuming and daunting process to procure seven speakers who are available, fit within that year’s budget, have differing topics from one another (and from the speakers from the year before) and whom our committee of skilled evaluators can agree upon! The chairs generally start the summer before their slate will see the stage—meaning they are choosing speakers 15-22 months in advance of that speaker’s performance.

Q: What are the qualities that make for a great speaker?

A: I love a speaker who has something to say that I haven’t already read or heard; who either adds to the writing that brought him/her to our attention or who can tell us the story of how the topic he speaks of came alive for him and so comes alive for me.
I also love a speaker with a lecture that has been carefully planned so that it has a clearly defined story arc. When they pull you in, blow your mind with information or a new way of thinking, then leave you dazed and wanting to learn more. Having the lecture be structured rather than more conversational tends to provide a more education and cohesive talk. I like it when there are visuals that go with the lecture. A speaker who is charismatic and kind is often evidenced by their interactions with students and audience members who ask questions.

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Clare Boothe Luce: editor, playwright and social activist.

Q: Just for fun, could you pull the list of speakers from, say, 1972? Who spoke that season? Does the lineup of speakers in any given season serve as a sort of time capsule? Can you tell something about an era by who the speakers were?

A: Any year will have some well known speakers and some up-and-coming speakers, but the year 1972 we had the following slate: Maya Angelou, Dr. John Searle, Clare Booth Luce, James Deakin, Eileen Shanahan, Dr. Bradford Burns.

I’m not sure that you can read the era by the speakers we have each year. Often we get speakers on the way up, or on the way down, rather than at the peak of their professional success (budget constraints) so you can’t necessarily connect a speaker’s existence on our slate with what is happening in the world at that time

Q: I’m sure you hear from people all the time that they don’t go to Town Hall because the lectures are in the morning and they have to work. How do you respond?

A: We hear this ALL the time. I generally say that we are a non-profit organization in its 83rd season. We originated as a speaker series for women who wanted to broaden their intellect at a time when most women were not in the workforce, hence the 10:30 a.m. Wednesday start time. Now we’ve got an average Wednesday morning audience of over 1,200, so we haven’t wanted to risk impairing attendance to moving to the evening. We’ve often talked about expanding into an evening series as well, but we are an all-volunteer board and it hasn’t yet seemed feasible.

Also, our core audience is people who have retired. We have a faithful and vocal older audience whose own mothers and aunts were active Town Hall attendees. Many older attendees do not like driving at night, especially downtown, and we don’t want to jeopardize their attendance. That said, we know our audience will continue to grow for a while as more boomers retire, but we are thinking about the future and the demand for a different kind of speaker experience. We just don’t yet know what that will look like yet,

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: We are always on the lookout for new board members who would like to continue to be educated and who have time to dedicate keeping our community educated and informed through thought-provoking lectures.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Celeste DeMonte

    Terrific and inspired interview! Glad you thought to do this on Fresno’s Town Hall in general.

    reply

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