Five Giants of Chautauqua Honored in Annual Celebration

no thumb

Each year, at the end of the season, five Chautauquans are honored for their service and dedication to the Institution. Some are well known, others relatively unsung. Some are living, and some are dead. What they all have in common is the love and respect of the community on which they have made a significant mark.

The 10th annual Giants of Chautauqua honors will be held at 3:30 p.m. August 26 in the Hall of Christ, the last presentation of the season in the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.

The ceremony grew out of a weekly theme in 2006, “Giants of the 20th Century.” That year, as an extension of that theme, Chautauqua’s president, Tom Becker, asked Jon Schmitz, the Institution’s archivist and historian, to come up with a Heritage Lecture honoring five important contributors to the Chautauqua experience. Schmitz called on five prominent members of the community to each choose a recipient of the honor and to speak about that person’s accomplishments. In 2009, the guidelines were adjusted and thereafter Schmitz himself chose the five honorees, with the input of other Chautauquans. No one may be honored more than once.

This year’s presenters and honorees are as follows:

Melissa Carl, who has been coming to Chautauqua since she was a teenager in the 1960s, will celebrate the life and contributions of James O’Brien, the president of the Chautauqua County Historical Society who left a lasting imprint on the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution (VACI).

O’Brien, who died in 2014, was a designer and artist trained at the Rhode Island School of Design. He ran his own design firm, The Folio Company, for years before moving to Westfield, New York, in 1999. After a fire destroyed his equipment and inventory, he threw himself into volunteer work in both local history and the arts. He donated his time and talent to VACI for more than a decade. He became president of the historical society in 2002 and served as the volunteer director of the society’s McClurg Museum in Westfield, where he designed exhibits and created educational programs to foster greater interest in local history.

Andie Mercer, a third-generation Chautauquan and teacher with a long-standing interest in women’s history, will honor Frances Willard, the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Willard helped found the anti-alcohol organization in 1874 and remained its president until her death in 1898. She visited Chautauqua many times during her tenure and formed a friendship and alliance with Mary Miller, the wife of Chautauqua’s co-founder Lewis Miller. Mary Miller’s daughter, Mina Miller Edison, who was married to Thomas Edison, recalled how her mother, Willard and other “dauntless women” stormed saloons and pleaded that they shut down, an endeavor often met with insults and buckets of water.

Willard, who was also a tireless proponent of women’s suffrage and the eight-hour workday, was an advocate of public drinking fountains as an alternative to liquor. The WCTU had headquarters on the grounds in Kellogg Hall and later, the mansion at 32 South Lake, outside of which was a drinking fountain.

Philip Brunskill, a former vice president of the Institution and a longtime member of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, will induct Robert Hesse, the president of the Institution from 1977 to 1983.

Hesse took over as president at a time when Chautauqua faced severe economic challenges and a kind of cultural identity crisis. During his six years at the helm, he reinvigorated the Institution with improved programming, extensive facilities rebuilding and renovation and marketing and public relations outreach, all of which led to increased attendance and financial stability. A visionary planner and deft administrator, Hesse restricted private car traffic and instituted the tram and shuttle bus service that helped make Chautauqua the pedestrian-friendly place it is today. He also supervised the restoration of the Amphitheater, the rebuilding of Kellogg Hall and the renovation of Bestor Plaza and the Main Gate.

Thomas A. Price, an attorney in Mayville and a lifelong Chautauquan, will do the honors for his father Samuel P. Price, the Institution’s legal counsel from the mid-1950s until his retirement in the mid-1980s. The Prices have been representing Chautauqua’s legal interests for 100 years. Samuel Price’s father, Wilson C. Price, was the Institution’s chief lawyer from early in the 20th century until 1960. Samuel Price’s son, Samuel P. Jr., has been legal counsel for more than 30 years.

Both Wilson Price and Samuel Price, the elder, were instrumental in pulling Chautauqua through its darkest days: the receivership of the 1930s and the moribund period in the mid 1970s. Sam Price is also well known for his dedication to the preservation of libraries. In 1968, he was instrumental in creating the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System and was long-serving member on the board of the James Prendergast Library in Jamestown.

A “mystery guest” will introduce Charles Heinz, the former vice president of community planning and design for the Institution.

With a successful background in real estate development, Heinz was instrumental in the construction in the late 1970s of NorthShore, the first condominium complex on the grounds of the Institution, and in opening up Chautauqua to the vacation rental market. He worked with the Athenaeum Hotel to create conference facilities and helped supervise many significant capital improvement projects over the years, including restoration of the Main Gate. A former emergency medical technician, Heinz has long been active in the Chautauqua Volunteer Fire Department.


The author David Geary

David Geary has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years. He retired in 2015 from The New York Times, where he was the late-night news editor. He also has worked for The Boston Globe and other newspapers. He currently freelances for the Times and for The Trace, a nonprofit journalism website focused on gun violence and gun policy in America. He lives in Westfield with his wife, Karin Henry.