On a warm Sunday night, flickers of candlelight punctuated the Hall of Philosophy’s storied columns.
The ambience was one of joy and reflection as the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Vigil Ceremony recognized the graduating Class of 2018.
Among the graduates — all draped in white with faces illuminated by twinkling ames — was Liz Propst.
This is only Propst’s second visit to Chautauqua. Last year, she witnessed Recognition Day, asked a friendly stranger about the celebration and spent the winter reading CLSC books.
On this Recognition Day, Propst will be one of the graduates in white and donning a class stole.
The celebration begins with the Alumni Association of the CLSC’s banner parade at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Aug 8. Separately, the Class of 2018 will make its way to the Hall of Philosophy from the Hall of Christ.
During the ceremony, a key etched with the inscription “read” will open the golden gates, and graduates will receive diplomas.
After the graduation ceremony, the newly initiated Class of 2018 will join the other alumni for the march to the Amphitheater for the presentation of the class banner.
There are 128 graduates this year, the 137th in CLSC’s 140-year history, and an additional 161 readers are graduating from various levels in the Guild of Seven Seals.
“The Recognition Day Ceremony follows 140 years of tradition that has been established by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, celebrating the pursuit of lifelong learning and a love of literature,” said Stephine Hunt, CLSC Veranda Manager.
In the spirit Hunt describes, the CLSC Class of 2018 motto is “Gateways to Open Minds,” and the class symbol is an archway of books.
The class flower, clematis, is a climbing plant sometimes referred to as “traveler’s joy.” As graduating member Jo Ann Wolfe wrote, clematis “reminds us how reading can open our minds at any time as we scramble through the printed pages of book, bringing us joy.”
Atom Atkinson, director of literary arts, said honoring this tradition also works to keep the “historic roots” of the CLSC alive.
“Even though today its function has changed (from being a correspondence course) and it’s much more about celebrating a lifetime of reading, whether someone is currently a student or not, it is more than just fun to honor people for committing themselves to that lifetime of reading,” Atkinson said. “But it is fun.”
As Recognition Day continues, there will be a luncheon for the Class of 2018 and a gala dinner for CLSC alumni.
But before today’s festivities of food, family, friends and celebration for the books read and pages yet to be turned was a quieter occasion: the vigil.
“Both ceremonies are steeped in tradition, and yet unique to each class, making the experience one of refreshing beauty,” Hunt said.
The vigil began with a march from the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall to the Hall of Philosophy. Musicians played, candles winked, and onlookers lit the path with ashlights and phones.
Music School Festival Orchestra members Xing Gao, Jonathan Lien and Elena Rubin performed the processional.
Atkinson read a note from the class honoree, Sherra Babcock, former vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education.
Babcock, who is currently traveling around the country and Canada as part of her retirement festivities, sent her warm thoughts from North Dakota.
“Today, enjoy your place in this historic celebration, and keep reading,” she wrote.
Members of the CLSC Class of 2018 gave readings from favorite authors that touched on the infinite powers of reading: Emily Dickinson, Anne Perry and Sherwin B. Nuland.
President Michael E. Hill, himself a graduate, read a selection from his Three Taps of the Gavel address.
After the acceptance of the class gifts, the Rev. Dr. J. Paul Womack, CLSC Class of 2009, shared the Grace of the Parting Word.
“Divine spirit who hovers over us and gives light to our eyes and sound to our ears, abide with us in the books we read, that we might understand the events we share and gain empathy for the characters we meet,” he read. “So that when we act in this world and appear in another story, it may be said of us, ‘There goes a practitioner of justice, a philanthropist of kindness, a benefactor of love, and thus be known as one who bestows grace on this Earth and the human race.’ ”
When Propst first visited Chautauqua last summer, she was only here for two days to visit her daughter, Jenni Propst, a lighting supervisor on the grounds. By happenstance, Propst stood on Bestor Plaza as the CLSC parade marched by.
Propst said she enjoys the historic and current CLSC selections and the different points of view they represent.
Of the 20 books she read this winter, two of her favorites were The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis.
“I loved the diversity and timeliness of holding our political leaders accountable by incorporating our spiritual values into change for America,” she said about God’s Politics.
Other than the parade she witnessed, Propst had not been to a single class gathering or met a CLSC member (although she is indebted to the stranger who talked to her that fateful Recognition
Day in 2017, she does not know the stranger’s name).
Propst lives in Asheville, North Carolina, far from Chautauqua. Using the internet, she researched the CLSC, fell in love with the reading circle, studied its history, learned about class flowers and then found an affordable way to read: her local library.
“I bought Mary Lee Talbot’s book, Chautauqua’s Heart, so I could learn more about the history and joy of the organization,” Propst said. “Her book has made me feel a part (of the tradition).”