I went to a Chautauqua in Greensburg, Indiana in the Fall of 2015. It was held in the auditorium of the Greensburg Community High School on the 5th and 6th of November. So what, you might ask, is a Chautauqua?
Chautauqua was a movement to bring speakers on a variety of topics to rural and remote America. It was founded in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It was a feature of American life until the 1930’s when cars and radio undermined the need. It aimed to educate and put before communities people and ideas they would not otherwise be exposed to. It was strong on social justice and science but operas and jazz bands also toured as part of the mix.
The movement still exists in America but on a much reduced scale. Nine years ago a mid-west history teacher, John Pratt, revived the tradition and in conjunction with his high school has run a bi-annual Chautauqua, each with a different theme.
John brings to Greensburg celebrities, adventurers and reformers from around the world. Most forego fees in keeping with the philosophy of altruism and fostering of the public good embodied in the notion of Chautauqua and embraced and encouraged by John. It saves fundraisers and donors money and makes possible the holding of a really dynamic event in a small community. With respect to the Chautauqua I was lucky enough to participate in the guests, having agreed to donate their time, entered into the spirit of the undertaking.
The theme of the 2015 Chautauqua was, “Based on a true story”. There were eight participants all of whom had been portrayed in feature length films. David Paterson was depicted in ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ adapted from his mothers book about David’s life. Sister Helen Prejean, a long term and fearsome advocate of the abolition of the death penalty in the US was played by Susan Sarandon in ‘Dead Man Walking’. Benjamin Mee, was depicted in ‘We Bought a Zoo’, he still runs the zoo in Dartmoor, UK. Dr Jeffrey Wigand was portrayed in, ‘The Insider’. He was a whistle blower with respect to the tobacco industry in the US. He was played by Russell Crowe. John McLaughlin, a policeman who led first responders into the World Trade Centre. He was buried for 22 hours when the building collapsed. He was in an induced coma for six weeks and was operated on 27 times. Nicholas Gage played him in the Oliver Stone film, ‘World Trade Centre’; and myself, portrayed by John Hargreaves in the Richard Attenborough anti-apartheid film, ‘Cry Freedom’.
There was also a local baseball hero, Bobby Plump, from the 1954 Milan Indians championship game, shown in the film ‘Hoosiers’ and Daniel Diaz, a Mexican/American who pulled himself out of poverty through his success at running. He was depicted in the film, ‘McFarland USA’ starring Kevin Costner. Each of the guests was allocated an hour and a half, with half the time given over to questions. I had the furthest to fly and was the first to arrive. My time was not wasted as I spoke to many classes in the host school of over 1000 pupils. It was great fun.
Guests at other Chautauqua’s included Susaye Greene, a member of the Supremes, Ron Rosser, Korean War Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Ed Asner star of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’, Nancy Nevins, lead singer of ‘Sweetwater’, John Stokes, original plaintiff in Brown v Board of Education, Dr. Terrance Roberts and Carlotta LaNeir of the Little Rock Nine and Jill Wine-Banks, a member of the Watergate prosecution team.
Funding is from local businesses, government and school fund raising. Each Chautauqua has its own theme and John says, “It is something big, something that changed or saved lives.” High school students volunteered to look after the guests for the period of their stay. I was lucky to get Adrian Hunter and Lauren Koester, well mannered and bright as buttons; they took me under their wing and showed me all there was to see including the piggery where Lauren worked after school. Greensburg bases its wealth on agriculture, corn is grown but most cattle are now sadly raised in feed lots. Because of this there were not many fences. The students, town and beyond turned up in droves for the sessions. The Greensburg Library hosted a Q&A with some of the guests.
The concept of a Chautauqua could be applied in Australia, particularly in rural Australia. The idea is to open students and the town to the wider world, to let them hear and interact with guests who have had unique experiences and contributed positively to humanity.
At the cost of covering expenses John has said he would be happy to come to Australia and help communities get a Chautauqua or an Australian equivalent off the ground. John can be contacted on, jopratt@greensburg.K12.in.us
Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator