A history of engagement: The San Joaquin Valley Town Hall lecture series
Photo courtesy of Howard Watkins.
For more than 75 years, the dedicated volunteers of the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall have brought world-renowned figures to the region for its lecture series.
The long-standing tradition began with a woman straight out of Nashville, Tennessee. Women have played key roles in the organization ever since.
Clio Lee Aydelott, a well-respected intellectual in her social circle in Tennessee, moved to California and married a Hanford native named George Cortner Aydelott. They had three children.
Clio established herself as a writer and an ongoing supporter of arts and culture.
“She had connections with authors and was an author herself,” said Town Hall historian Al Evans.
The Aydelotts’ home, known as Kilmers Trees, was touted as a cultural center for writers and artists in the area. In addition to writing several books, Clio developed a program called Children’s Hour that encouraged young people to find their creative voices and express themselves.
Most importantly, Clio was an original founder of the San Joaquin Chapter of the League of Western Writers, which would be the foundation for the lecture series. Her position with the organization required that she travel frequently to San Francisco. During one of her trips, she met Dr. Alan Rappaport, who had founded a lecture series. In 1938, after some convincing by Clio and her colleagues, he brought his speakers to Fresno.
Although the event was called the Fresno Town Hall Forum, Fresno was one of several U.S. cities to host Rappaport’s lecture series.
“It was kind of a traveling show,” said Town Hall president Julie Beecher. “They took the same eight speakers from city to city.”
The women of the Town Hall Forum soon wanted more independence and to handcraft a local event that would be distinct and pertinent to the Valley. The San Joaquin Valley Town Hall of Fresno was established in October 1946. In 1961, it became a tax exempt nonprofit corporation with a mission of simplicity: to operate “… exclusively for educational literary, and scientific purposes…”
“It’s a great example of the leadership of women here in the Valley,” Evans said of the prominent role women have played in the organization since its earliest incarnations, adding that every Town Hall president from 1941 to the present has been female.
The elevation of women in the organization seemed an intentional choice.
“Originally, it was created for women by women,” said Kristen Telles, vice president of programs. “I don’t think men were allowed on the board, and the lectures reflected that by being in the morning [when men were at work and wouldn’t be able to attend.]”
Board members have become more diverse over the years. The selection of speakers has developed into a more collaborative process. Telles said audiences are encouraged to submit their ideas. She, along with co-vice president Hillary Bell, narrows down the pool of possible speakers from hundreds to just seven.
“We talk to them or their agent about what we expect,” Beecher said of initial discussions with potential speakers. “We want them to educate, not just give us a life story.”
Brochures from previous seasons are sent to candidates to communicate the caliber and reputation of previous visitors to the lecture series. The names are impressive: Henry Kissinger, Margaret Mead, Ray Bradbury and Condoleezza Rice, to list a few.
“I think anyone wants to hear a dynamic speech,” Beecher said. “Our audience members are intellectual people looking to learn from others at the top of their field.”
One of Beecher’s favorite lectures was by Dr. Edward Diener in 2009.
“He came to talk about the study of what makes people happy,” she said. “The psychology of this is all cutting edge. For me, that was the most fun speech of the season.”
For Evans, last season’s opening speech by Robert Edsel “was really moving.” Edsel is the author of Monuments Men, a story about art enthusiasts who rescue priceless masterworks from the spoils of war. The book was later adapted into a major motion picture.
“They ventured into Europe during war time for such a noble purpose,” Evans said of the story’s protagonists. “That choked me up.”
This year marks Town Hall’s 79th season. It opened with an evening lecture by Steve Wozniak, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist known for his design and co-founding of Apple Computers. The daytime series will feature animal expert and renowned television media figure Jack Hanna, TED Conference contributor and esteemed free-thinker Sir Ken Robinson, and former White House correspondent Ann Compton. It will conclude with a timely visit from statewide water solutions expert Daniel Nelson, well-known author and professor of religion at Boston University Stephen Prothero, and American global combatant commander and NATO leader Admiral James Stavridis.
Most audience members buy season tickets to see all the speakers, but tickets for individual speeches are also available. Students with an I.D. can attend the lectures for free.
Beecher seems especially proud of the opportunities the Town Hall gives students, some of whom take advantage of the luncheons directly following the lectures and interact with the guest speakers.
“They get to meet someone from history or ask for advice for their own life,” Beecher said, adding that such interactions can be life-changing. “It makes you want to get more involved on a world stage.”
For more information about The San Joaquin Valley Town Hall, this season’s schedule of speakers, or to purchase tickets, call (559) 444-2180 or go to valleytownhall.com
Written by Andrew Veihmeyer, who was news editor of the campus newspaper while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in communication at Fresno State. Most recently, he has worked as a marketing intern for several companies and nonprofits in the Central Valley.