Since 1958 the ISU Lecture Series has developed one of the most expansive series of lectures in the country. With topics dealing from politics and science, to race, gender, and sexuality, it is no wonder the Lecture Series has become a cornerstone of the ISU experience.
I’m very happy to introduce our guest blogger, the illustrious former Director of the ISU Lecture Series, Pat Miller. We are very honored to have her share some of her favorite memories wrangling speakers during her 37 year career.
Before I came on board the Lectures Program at Iowa State in April of 1981, I was aware of the quality of speakers brought to campus. As a student, I had attended talks by feminist scholar Germain Greer, activist comedian Dick Gregory, a joint lecture by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, and James Doohan who played Scotty of “Star Trek” fame, among others.
At that time, I was not aware that we had the good fortune to have a University Library staff hard at work archiving and making available the recordings of speakers who allowed taping of their talks, expanding their impact beyond the initial audience. Students and faculty could just stop in the Library and check out a cassette tape for a speaker they missed, though more recently, lectures have been made available by podcast on the Lectures Program website. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Library would try to maintain an archive of the spoken words of such notables as poet Maya Angelou, architect Buckminster Fuller, writer Norman Mailer and artist Andy Warhol, along with anthropologist Margaret Mead who had been on campus with her signature walking stick.
I soon learned in my work how hard it was to attract these luminaries, especially if you were located in what has been described as a “flyover” state but grew to love the challenge. Also, to have patience but be persistent when failing to connect, because you never knew when another door would open. And working on a sense of humor helps, too. So, here are some examples of how I spent 37 years running the Lectures Program and plotting approaches to potential speakers.
Let’s begin with the speakers like Bill Nye the Science Guy who have agents. It took 5 years of Engineers’ Week invitations to the Science Guy and my calls to his agent with a jaunty “Guess who this is? If it is April it must be Iowa State with another invitation for Bill Nye!” to have her laugh and finally say “Let’s make this happen!”
For busy and very much-in-demand New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, it took finding a tie-in date around the World Food Prize events in Des Moines to make it workable for him to include a stop at Iowa State. It was the same with the former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, who was then United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Change. Agents worked with us on both of these over several years.
As for SNL’s Ana Gasteyer, best known for her topless Martha Stewart portrayal for the SNL Christmas show, she had both a personal contact and an agent. Her brother came to the rescue when we needed one more speaker, quietly suggesting her in one of our planning meetings. At first, we all thought he was kidding, but they did indeed have the same last name and he got a confirmation from his sister for me to work through her agent. She came and talked about “The Women of SNL”, providing a unique perspective on women and work, and also visited her brother.
The advantage of the direct contact category of speakers is that they provide a greater opportunity for persuasion. Which is how I came to be making my way through a crowded room at the Book Expo in NYC to talk to much-in-demand political writer Christopher Hitchens who was about to go on with a panel of other atheist authors. I hesitated to interrupt as they were all ready to begin, but took what could have been my only opportunity to run up and explain myself, invite him to speak at Iowa State on behalf of the students and faculty who really wanted him to come, apologize again as he said he would love to, and then try to discreetly flee the room. Any notion about discretion was abandoned when he leaned down closer to the microphone and said loudly and with even greater emphasis “I really, really want to come!” While everyone laughed, I slipped out the door with his email address AND a commitment!
Another category is the “I’ll die if he\she doesn’t come!” and includes Tony award-winning “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom, Jr. For speakers to qualify for this category, multiple students must fall into one of my office chairs while uttering that phrase.
A perennial student favorite, Noam Chomsky, should be included in this category. He had responded to a graduating senior who was exchanging late night emails with him. As a member of the World Affairs Series planning committee, the student was thrilled at the prospect of hosting one of his heroes. Chomsky’s congenial assistant called to say yes for him. Joy turned to panic when she gave a fall date for the following year. Of course, I had to plead for any workable date before graduation, explaining that the student feared he could die of disappointment if we failed after having come so close. She said, “oh honey, they all say they’re going to die!” But then she got him here before graduation.
Then there was the student driving the year-long, fruitless effort to invite Yvonne Chouinard, founder and CEO of Patagonia and active environmentalist. He had stopped by my office before he left for a summer internship to plead for me not to give up. So, I agreed to search the web once more, and found that the Malibu Surf Club had given him an environmental award. When I emailed the Club president, he was happy to forward contact information and the rest is history. We later learned from Chouinard’s assistant that he only did one lecture a year, which was why we received dozens of calls asking how we got him to come.
My lengthiest speaker pursuit was for prolific writer and climate activist Margaret Atwood. A letter of invitation first went to her in 1987 with years of written and emailed invitations as follow-up. When I found out that her nephew was in the Physics Department on campus, I added that to the invitations along with opportunities to indulge her addiction to birdwatching. Then the chance to speak with her directly came after her talk as a part of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop series. As she finished autographing her last book, I gave my Iowa State spiel, and she looked up and said ‘Ah, the butter cow!” This was in reference to our most recent invitation that included an offer to take her to see the 3000 pound, hand-carved butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. I always use this as an example of why you should take great care in writing a letter\email of invitation. Above all, be memorable but brief!
While there are many more stories, I would like to close by mentioning the ones that got away because some of the most memorable speaker interactions came in their rejection letters. Or in the case of be very witty Dave Barry, writer of books and columns, a postcard. He had written only “I never travel without Jell-O!” in response to my invitation that offered the enticement of coming to a place where an Iowa woman’s Jell-O mold stayed intact on her lap driving to a potluck dinner even after an accident in which the car rolled twice!
But best of all, are writer Gore Vidal’s two letters hand-written on lovely light blue stationary from his villa in the Ravello, Italy, where I had sent them after reading about his home there. In the first he wrote “I fear an ocean shall separate us in November!” It was a rejection so graceful; you were hardly aware he was saying no.
For the second, after I had encouraged him to come experience the presidential caucuses, something I’ve frequently made mention of in invitations. He replied that if he ran in the caucuses he would win, and if he ran in the general election he would win, and then Frank Sinatra would continually pester him with requests to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom, so no he would not be coming.
As they say you can’t make this stuff up.
The National Recording Preservation Foundation awards Iowa State University Library $14,999 for the preservation of 991 at-risk archival Lecture Series recordings. NRPF Executive Director, Gerald Seligman, states, “We were impressed by the sheer range of speakers and subjects from the series, a veritable cross-section of culture, politics, the arts and sciences.” For this grant we will focus on lectures from the 1970s through the 1990s, roughly 1640 hours, 259 reel-to-reel tapes, 732 audiocassettes all to be restored, digitized and made accessible via the University Library’s own platform and for the general public on our YouTube channel.