Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
A “family” of Austin, Texas, residents celebrates their annual return to Chautauqua. Seated, holding Texas flag: Barbara Miller and Ted Smith. Behind chairs, left to right: Tibb Middleton, Mary Beth Rogers, Cindy Pladziewicz, Barbara Vackar, Will Martin, Betsy Marton, Ken Wendler, Lee Thomson, Tommy Thomson and Cathy Bonner.
Twelve current and former residents of Austin, Texas, gathered on the St. Elmo porch for a family portrait. Describing themselves as “the Austin pod,” the group is not a biological family, but, as Ted Smith said, “an intentional family.”
Austin is the “family’s” connection and Chautauqua Institution, the homestead. The progenitors are Smith and Barbara Miller, who sit in rocking chairs for the June 28 photo.
The relationships intrigue Smith, who taught at the University of Texas at Austin and is now a real estate agent in Washington, D.C. He is this Austin circle’s original member and acts as its historian.
Smith’s Chautauqua story began when Miles and Gloria Lasser, Chautauquans and Jamestown, N.Y., residents, invited their colleague Vern Moss to visit. Moss recommended the Institution to his son Tom, who, in 1988, invited Smith, his Amherst College classmate. Smith returns each summer still enchanted.
In 1991, Smith shared that enchantment with Miller, a public speaking and presentation consultant. They both agree that you either “get” the Institution or you don’t. Miller did, and has returned every summer.
“I don’t come for the theme, though I enjoy the lectures and classes,” she said. “I come here for community.”
The Austin pod met in 1996, when Miller invited some close friends to the Institution to celebrate her 50th birthday. Two of those guests were Barbara Vackar and Kathy Bonner.
Those friends brought their brand of Austin energy to the Institution. Vackar went on join the Chautauqua Women’s Club, serving as president from 2005 to 2010. Bonner is also an active member of the Women’s Club and served as treasurer of the Chautauqua Literary Arts Friends.
Vackar and Bonner became Chautauqua advocates before the Chautauqua Advocates program came into existence. They introduced the Institution to their friend Liz Carpenter, press secretary and staff director for former First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. When Carpenter spoke in the Amphitheater for the first time on July 8, 1998, she and Vacker stayed at what was then the Wensley House.
She thinks that the Austin connection to the Institution begins with Mrs. Percy V. Pennybacker. According to The Chautauqua Assembly Daily Herald’s July 12, 1899 issue, Anna Pennybacker stayed at the Athenaeum Hotel with her family. (Yes, the same Anna Pennybacker who served as the Women’s Club president for 20 years and was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt was also an Austin resident.)
The Chautauqua idea had spread westward. The Texas Board of Regents developed the Colorado Chautauqua in Boulder, Colo., in the 1890s. The Colorado Chautauqua is going strong today, though it offers a more informal setting with limited programming. Pennybacker was a promoter of this endeavor — which may explain her 1899 visit to the Institution — but reportedly preferred the New York Chautauqua experience.
Miller has visited the Colorado Chautauqua and agrees with Pennybacker.
“It’s nothing like the New York mothership,” Miller said of Colorado.
This family of friends could have traveled to attractive destinations closer to home, so why do they migrate 1,507 miles to a village in Western New York?
Their answers vary: to reflect, to learn. But their immediate response to the question is: “Each other.”
This June 28, the day the photo was taken, was the 17th anniversary of Miller’s birthday that brought them all together. What an impact that celebration has had.