At the end of June, Evanston was home to the one hundredth Levy Lecture!
What started as an infrequent, in-person lecture series created to entice Evanstonians age 55 plus to the Levy Senior Center transformed into a virtual, weekly or bi-weekly webinar series during the pandemic. Between 2017 and 2022, 26 lectures were in person and 74 were virtual.
The Levy Senior Center Foundation provided funding and organizational support for the free program. Meeting online “Tuesdays at 1 p.m.” became a virtual lifeline to many of the seniors who tuned in each week, a fact I was reminded of frequently in weekly post-lecture surveys and in the notes of generous individuals they included with their financial donations.
Establishing a regular place to go was one small way of creating an oasis of routine, entertainment, community and sanity amid a time of great uncertainty.
Think back to spring and early summer 2020: the aura of death seemed omnipresent. We fought back as best we could. The pandemic gave us lemons and we made lemonade.
Let me share some highlights.
The first lecture was held in person at the Levy Senior Center on March 14, 2017. It snowed that day. I was certain no one would show up. Thankfully I was proved wrong. The room was nearly full and eager to hear Barbara Geiger present “The Devil Comes to Evanston,” a scenic tour of local sites with connections to Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City.
The final lecture of 2022 was on June 28. Tracy Vaughn-Manley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, presented her research, scholarship and photographs of her quilt artistry as part of a presentation on quilting within post-civil rights literature written by Black women.
I had been politely hounding Manley since February 2020 after I met her, heard her speak and saw her quilts in person at the Skokie Library.
There have been 70 unique speakers over 100 lectures. Sixteen speakers made more than one appearance, and two spoke nine times. The two most frequent and popular speakers are Leslie Goddard, Ph.D., a historian and actor who presents historical portraits of famous women and Megan Wells, MFA, a professional storyteller and actor.
In March 2020, both Goddard and Wells had gaps in their normally packed schedules. I quickly booked them each for five successive weekly webinars. They provided a much-needed escape from the biological catastrophe unfurling around the seniors who were craving stimulation and community.
The lectures provided an opportunity to learn about how others lived, what they thought about and experiences they had and wanted to share.
- Yvonne Wolf, cultural expert on Asia, explained how to celebrate the Chinese New Year and the significance of each step. Donna Washington, professional storyteller, shared stories about Juneteenth. Fruteland Jackson, legendary blues musician, taught musical history and played tunes. Michele Nichols, astro educator, described the solar system, Mars and the international space station in a way that made astronomy fun and approachable.
Twenty-five of the 100 lectures were authors discussing non-fiction books they had recently published or works that were still in progress.
These included memoirs looking back on interesting careers (Cynthis Beebe, Boots in the Ashes), people at the center of social change (Linda Gartz, Redlined), people reflecting on their role in unique historical events (Jill Wine-Banks, Watergate Girl) and those confronting difficult family histories (Silvia Forte, The Nazi’s Granddaughter). Most of those books now reside on the library shelves at the Levy Senior Center, 300 Dodge Ave.
Webinar attendees shared lecture registration information with friends and relatives throughout the United States and in a few instances, overseas. Going virtual expanded the audience and allowed me to recruit speakers who lived in other states (Akbar Imhotep spoke on “Frederick Douglass, Orator and Abolitionist”) and countries (Andrew Moskos spoke on “Serious Funny Business.”)
Over five and a half years, the most moving presentation for me was Christopher Benson talking about the conversations he had with Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, whom he interviewed for the book they wrote together, Death of Innocence.
The book tells the life and death story of the innocent youngster and how his mother found the strength to continue living after his murder. On the Foundation’s YouTube channel, this webinar honoring the 65th anniversary of the death of 14-year old Till is the most widely viewed webinar with more than 1,100 views.
Each webinar required at least five separate technologies to promote, air, tape, supply closed-captions, edit, gather feedback and mail information to registrants. There is nothing quite like making a technical mistake in real time in front of an online crowd and then watching a virtual tsunami of hundreds of online comments flood the screen. Like a deer caught in high beams, I was nearly paralyzed. Somehow I plowed ahead, but nightmares came later.
Best of all, I made friends through the Levy Lecture Series, both speakers and attendees. Attendees contacted me and I met at least half a dozen for coffee or walks. One new friend sent charming postcards every so often that I discreetly displayed in the background of my onscreen view.
Others I met when I dropped off books (copies of Golem Girl gifted by author Riva Lehrer) or T-shirts they ordered. These warm people offered friendship, boosted my confidence, and suggested ideas for future webinars.
I’ll end on a high point: treasure the intellectual, emotional, financial and political power of the seniors who live among us. They bring wisdom, experience and joy to just about everything they do. They are a force to be reckoned with and their generosity is large. I know from experience.
Wendi Kromash is a contributor to the RoundTable and also created the popular Levy Lecture Series, launched in 2017 and funded by the Levy Senior Center Foundation.