Chautauquan remembered for philanthropy, friendships and baseball

Grant Engle | Staff Writer

A group of Chautauquans will pay tribute to a friend by celebrating two things he loved: professional baseball and thoughtful discussion with friends.

The organizers of the “5th Annual Joe Rait Memorial: Chautauqua to Jamestown Excursion” said the event is the perfect convergence of passion for professional baseball and engaging in meaningful social discourse.

Joe Rait and his wife, Barbara, had been coming to Chautauqua for more than 30 years before Joe died in 2008.

For several years, alongside his friends Greg Peterson and Mark Altschuler, Joe organized an annual trip during the season to bring Chautauquans to a Jamestown Jammers minor-league baseball game.

Altschuler, commissioner of the slow-pitch softball league on the grounds, said the tradition grew out of the three men’s love of baseball and love for Chautauqua.

Peterson, an attorney in Jamestown, said he was happy to keep the tradition going as a tribute to his friend.

“I think it’s important to have a memorial for an individual who was multifaceted and who involved himself with the arts, the education and the enhancement of this region,” Peterson said. “Part of that enhancement was his encouragement of the local baseball team.”

This year’s memorial will be a departure from the previous year’s events. The group will not attend a baseball game, but rather a discussion with former Detroit Tigers slugger Willie Horton.

Horton finished his career with 325 home runs, but he is perhaps best known for standing on top of a car in his uniform during the 1967 Detroit riot while trying to calm an angry mob.

The discussion will include excerpts from the HBO film “City on Fire,” which documents the race riot. Jim Daniels, Chautauqua poet-in-residence for Week Five, will also read a poem at the event.

Peterson said the tribute is a perfect reflection of Joe’s interests and personality, and that he is happy to continue his friend’s pursuit of connecting Chautauqua to professional baseball.

“It’s an amazing amalgam of many aspects of being a Chautauquan, and those qualities were embodied by Joe Rait,” Peterson said.

In the four years after Joe’s death, Barbara Rait has still come to Chautauqua every summer, and she said the memorial organized by Joe’s friends is meaningful to her.

“Chautauqua was a very important part of Joe’s life,” Barbara said. “The people who went to baseball games and organized events with him were dear to him.”

The Raits even traveled across the country to come to Chautauqua after having moved to Seattle more than a decade ago. The choice was baffling to some of the couple’s friends in the Pacific Northwest, which is known for its mild, comfortable summers.

Barbara said the Institution’s appeal was too strong to let 2,500 miles stand in the way of the pursuit of lifelong learning.

“People used to ask me ‘Why do you choose to leave during the best time of the year?’ I would say, ‘You just don’t know Chautauqua,’ ” she said.

The memorial will start at 5 p.m. today with a tour of the Robert H. Jackson Center at 305 E. Fourth St. in Jamestown. Following the tour will be a reception with hors d’oeuvres and drinks, immediately followed by the excerpts from “City on Fire” and the discussion with Horton. Admission is free and open to the public, but donations will be accepted.