What do Mikhail Gorbachev, Madeleine Albright, Frank McCourt and Walter Cronkite all have in common? They’re among the many famed past speakers at the St. Louis Speakers Series, presented by Maryville University. We spoke with Bill Conrow, the originator of the series, about how it emerged, some memorable moments, and a sneak peek at the 2013-2014 season.
How did the series get started?
I had been retired and someone started a small lecture series where I live. I had always enjoyed hearing really bright people give presentations on different subjects, and it stimulated my interest and started me thinking about it. I took a six-week trip around the country, visiting almost every major city, St. Louis among them. The people at Powell Hall were so excited about the concept of what I wanted to do. I liked the people at Powell Hall, along with the other people I met, so we got started in St. Louis.
Who has been the most memorable speaker?
If I took 50 questions about the series from 50 different people, that is what 45 of the 50 would ask. It’s really difficult to say that there’s any one speaker who is my favorite, because we’ve had so, so many who were outstanding. I’ll see people following an event, people I’ve gotten to know of through the years, and they’ll say, Tonight was the best lecture we’ve ever had! They’re honestly telling me the truth, but they’ve actually told me that four or five times before.
How do you decide the speakers each year?
For the 2013-2014 season, we sent out a survey to subscribers last September and we gave them four categories of potential speakers: American politics and international affairs; media or journalists; authors; and miscellaneous. In each category, we had 60 names and we asked them to mark the top five choices for people they want to hear, and the two choices in the ‘no’ column they least want to hear. Then we start looking at the top choices. We want to see how good they are in giving a 50-minute presentation: Can they hold the audience’s attention for that amount of time? We don’t book any speakers who just read a lecture. Sometimes we see people who are quite popular, but when we see them give a presentation, we realize they can’t do it.
We try to have a balanced, eclectic group of speakers, kind of like a good liberal arts course. We keep it balanced politically, although one year it might be a little slanted conservatively, another year it might be more liberal. I think I can speak across the board from a lot of years of experience, and people want to hear from people who think like themselves. One of our goals is to get people away from that. When you listen to people who think like you, you might pick up good talking points to supplement your own ideas, but you don’t really learn anything new. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t sell individual tickets; you have to purchase the subscription. That forces people to hear people who don’t think just like them. It’s also rewarding that one of the most common comments that we get is, I wasn’t looking forward to this particular lecture, but it ended up being the one I enjoyed the most this season. It’s really fun to see people come in with little interest and walk out really amazed.
What speakers are coming up for next year’s season?
Our first speaker is George Papandreou, the former prime minister of Greece. The Greek people were so unhappy that they pretty much forced him out of office. He’s an interesting and bright fellow, and he’s going to be teaching at Harvard next year.
Our next speaker will be best-selling author Bill Bryson, who’s well known for A Walk in the Woods, about his trip up the Appalachian Trail. I love people who can take a subject that could seem mundane or boring and make it so interesting.
Next will be Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. George W. Bush named him to that position and President Obama retained him. He had been with the CIA for 25 or so years, became the president of Texas A&M, and then was asked to come back to the government as Secretary of Defense. Since leaving the Obama administration, he became chancellor of the College of William & Mary, so he has a really diverse background.
The fourth speaker is going to be Steve Wozniak: He and Steve Jobs founded Apple computers. He’s been very involved in the whole scientific and engineering aspects of Apple. The next speaker is going to be Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican who just stepped down from office in Maine. When she announced that she was retiring, she cited the hyper-partisanship and the dysfunction of Congress as her reason for not seeking re-election. We heard her speak, and she’s a moderate with a lot of common sense.
Next will be former CBS anchor Dan Rather, who now hosts Dan Rather Reports on cable. He’s a household fixture, and we heard him last September and we were really impressed with him.
We rarely have people return to the series for a second time, but historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is the No. 1 in our survey of authors people would like to hear. It’s been six or seven years since we had her, and she’s not only a great author but also a great speaker. Her latest book, Team of Rivals, was made into the movie Lincoln. She’s really interesting in terms of analyzing a speaker—I always say a speaker has to have some humor—they can’t talk too fast and they can’t speak in monotone. She’s really fast and she speaks in monotone, but she’s a great speaker! She gives you two lectures for the price of one.