Couple extends Chautauqua experience through volunteering


Hal Simmons, Kate McKee Simmons and Susan McKee pose for a portrait at their summer home on the grounds at Chautauqua Institution. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Sarah Gelfand | Staff Writer

It’s easy to sit in a lecture and hear about how to fix the government or how to find the common good, but a challenge for Chautauquans is taking those lessons and calls to action outside the gates.

Susan McKee and Hal Simmons have done just that — actively taking what they learn here at Chautauqua and putting it into action.

Simmons created an Abrahamic Initiative in their hometown of Denver. McKee is the founder of women4women-knitting4peace, a peace movement that claims Chautauqua as its headquarters.

On top of it all, McKee and Simmons are first-time volunteers for the Chautauqua Fund, putting time back into the Institution. As they take their inspirations from Chautauqua outside of the Institution, they also put their time back in.

McKee’s parents both came to the grounds in their youth — her father vacationed here in the off-season, and her mother worked here in the summers during her college years. In 1979, the family bought the house they still return to 30 years later.

Simmons was brought into the Chautauqua fold the year before he and McKee married.

“I liked (Chautauqua) so much,” Simmons said. “We changed all our vacations so we could come here.”

This year, he serves as coordinator of scripture readers for the Department of Religion.

McKee and Simmons’ 20-year-old daughter, Kate, is the third generation of Chautauquans in their family.

“Kate says she’s been here for 22 years, even though she’s only 20 years old,” McKee said. “She counts the summer I was pregnant and then the next summer (when) she was 10 months old.”

Their summers at Chautauqua have marked individual and family milestones.

“Kate has grown up here, learned to ride a bike here, had her first ice cream cone here, went to Children’s School and Club,” McKee said. “Lots of those firsts that are big deals in little kids’ lives. I think if we looked for the single, most critical or formative influence in our family’s life, that’s touched everybody individually and as a family, I think it would be Chautauqua.”

McKee, who recently finished seminary and is going through the process of ordination with the United Church of Christ, said Chautauqua is a place of spiritual renewal — of pilgrimage — for her and their family. Their spiritual and philanthropic activities stem from their Chautauqua experience.

In 1999, the Department of Religion launched the Abrahamic Initiative, and it was a turning point for the family. Simmons, a retired general merchandise manager, saw the importance and impact of the program and brought it back to Denver. Working with St. John’s Cathedral there, Simmons was told he had to start the program on his own, so he did.

Today, the Abrahamic Initiative in Denver has touched hundreds and even thousands of lives across the three Abrahamic faiths through small-group activities, dialogues and dinner groups.

“It’s life transforming,” Simmons said. “One of the takeaways I have from Chautauqua is that everyone I know now is different from the people I knew 12 years ago, because we’re into this interfaith community, and that’s what we do.”

Five years later, in the Hall of Philosophy, McKee had her own moment of action. McKee knew she needed to get involved as she listened to discussions and pleas for peace from Joan Chittister and women from the Israeli peace village Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam in 2004.

“Joan Chittister was the keynote speaker of the week, and her message that year was that peace will never happen until women get involved in radical new ways,” McKee said. “I spent a lot of time thinking through the winter and trying to figure it out with my priests and spiritual leaders. When I returned to Chautauqua the next summer, I had an inspiration about what could happen, what could be radical peace-making, and it’s the notion that knitting needles and crochet hooks and prayer are ultimately more powerful than bombs.”

The result was women4women-knitting4peace, an organization focusing on women knitting items that have a spiritual and interfaith connotation. Members have knitted more than 12,000 items and personally delivered them to 36 countries.

McKee refers to Chautauqua as the “mothership” of the organization; the Institution still plays a large role in women4women-knitting4peace, and McKee sees the organization as an ambassador of Chautauquan values.

Chautauqua has made a definitive impact on both the McKee-Simmons family members and the many lives they’ve touched outside of Chautauqua. McKee and Simmons’ response was to give back.

“I love coming home when I come to Chautauqua,” McKee said. “When you’re a part of a huge extended family, as Chautauqua is, you want to give back; you want to contribute, and I think we want to help keep Chautauqua as a healthy place financially and wherever else we can contribute.”

In addition to a planned gift with the Chautauqua Foundation, McKee and Simmons are taking on a new philanthropic duty this season: volunteering with the Chautauqua Fund.

“I’m looking forward to getting to know people we would otherwise not meet,” McKee said. “We’ll meet people from other parts of the country that we can share our Chautauqua experiences with and learn something from — what excites them about Chautauqua. And hopefully in the process, give back to Chautauqua.”

McKee and Simmons said volunteering would allow them to give back in a new and engaging way. Their volunteerism will help perpetuate the combination of activism and spiritual and familial fulfillment that Chautauqua spurred in their own lives. That Chautauqua experience encouraged them to give back both inside and outside the gates, creating meaning both in their own lives and throughout the world.