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Chautauqua in Greensburg, Indiana

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 5 December 2016


I went to a Chautauqua in Greensburg, Indiana in the Fall of 2015. It was held in the auditorium of the Greensburg Community High School on the 5th and 6th of November. So what, you might ask, is a Chautauqua?

Chautauqua was a movement to bring speakers on a variety of topics to rural and remote America. It was founded in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua in New York State. It was a feature of American life until the 1930's when cars and radio undermined the need. It aimed to educate and put before communities people and ideas they would not otherwise be exposed to. It was strong on social justice and science but operas and jazz bands also toured as part of the mix.

The movement still exists in America but on a much reduced scale. Nine years ago a mid-west history teacher, John Pratt, revived the tradition and in conjunction with his high school has run a bi-annual Chautauqua, each with a different theme.

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John brings to Greensburg celebrities, adventurers and reformers from around the world. Most forego fees in keeping with the philosophy of altruism and fostering of the public good embodied in the notion of Chautauqua and embraced and encouraged by John. It saves fundraisers and donors money and makes possible the holding of a really dynamic event in a small community. With respect to the Chautauqua I was lucky enough to participate in, the guests, having agreed to donate their time, entered into the spirit of the undertaking.

The theme of the 2015 Chautauqua was, "Based on a true story". There were eight participants, all of whom had been portrayed in feature length films.

David Paterson was depicted in 'Bridge to Terabithia' adapted from his mothers book about David's life.

Sister Helen Prejean, a long term and fearsome advocate of the abolition of the death penalty in the US was played by Susan Sarandon in 'Dead Man Walking'.

Benjamin Mee, was depicted in 'We Bought a Zoo', he still runs the zoo in Dartmoor, UK. Dr Jeffrey Wigand was portrayed in, 'The Insider'. He was a whistle blower with respect to the tobacco industry in the US. He was played by Russell Crowe.

John McLaughlin, a policeman who led first responders into the World Trade Centre. He was buried for 22 hours when the building collapsed. He was in an induced coma for six weeks and was operated on 27 times. Nicholas Cage played him in the Oliver Stone film, 'World Trade Centre'.

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I was portrayed by John Hargreaves in the Richard Attenborough anti-apartheid film, 'Cry Freedom'.

There was also a local baseball hero, Bobby Plump, from the 1954 Milan Indians championship game, shown in the film 'Hoosiers' and Daniel Diaz, a Mexican/American who pulled himself out of poverty through his success at running. He was depicted in the film, 'McFarland USA' starring Kevin Costner.

Each of the guests was allocated an hour and a half, with half the time given over to questions. I had the furthest to fly and was the first to arrive. My time was not wasted as I spoke to many classes in the host school of over 1000 pupils. It was great fun.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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