Braham Fund celebrates former Institution president, family’s dedication to Chautauqua

Sydney Maltese | Staff Writer

Adam Birkan | Staff Photographer
Jim Braham and Isabel Pederson

Before W. Walter Braham had ever been to Chautauqua, N.Y., he paid his way through law school as a lecturer on the tent Chautauqua circuit.

Years later, he served as president of Chautauqua Institution, from 1956 to 1960.

Braham’s wife, Selina, had a history with the Institution, and introduced Walter to the place.

“My mother had been coming since her childhood,” said Isabel Pedersen, Walter and Selina’s daughter. “She and Dad rented for five years before we bought the family house. He was a new Chautauquan when he got married.”

Before long, the couple brought their children to the Institution as well, and Chautauqua became a family affair. At the time, the young family was living in Western Pennsylvania, where cultural opportunities were less than plentiful.

“Our parents brought us here when we were little children. My brother Jim and I, and our brother who is no longer alive, fell in love with the place, and we wanted to come, wanted to stay,” Pedersen said.

While president of the Institution, Braham took a turn lecturing, this time in the Amphitheater rather than a tent. He and Selina were dedicated to Chautauqua.

“They loved it, and kept coming until their deaths,” Pedersen said.

In 1979, after Walter died, the Selina and Walter Braham Lectureship Fund was established to support the tradition of fine Chautauqua lecturers. The fund reflects the Brahams’ love for and dedication to the Institution, according to Pedersen.

The list of lecturers supported by the fund reads like a “Who’s Who” in the arts, politics, journalism and academia: David McCullough in 1987; Hillary and Bill Clinton in 1991; Tim Russert in 1994; Robert Pinsky in 1999; Candy Crowley in 2001; and Robert Kagan in 2004.

Such lectureships provide support beyond the speaker’s honorarium. The Department of Education spends months prior to the season making arrangements with the speaker, his or her staff, publishers and agents. The department must fly speakers to Buffalo from as far away as Europe and the Middle East, provide transportation to and from the grounds, work with the U.S. State Department on securing visas for some speakers, and provide hospitality for the speaker and his or her family while they are staying at Chautauqua.

“Given my father’s particular interests, a lecture program seemed like a good thing to help to keep going,” said Pedersen, who always attends morning lectures.

“Some of the younger members of our family have been adding to the fund over the last years,” Pedersen said. “They love Chautauqua too.”

Throughout the years, the family has expanded — they were 54 strong at a family gathering on the Fourth of July — but their connection to the Institution has not waned, nor their appreciation of Chautauqua’s lectures.

“It is really world-class, of all the things we do,” Pedersen said.