From the President

Column by Thomas M. Becker

Provided Photo
Riley Burton, daugther of Heather (Zellers) and Brad Burton and granddaughter of Donna and Bob Zellers.

This week concludes with the Fourth of July and therefore the grounds will be teeming with intergenerational expressions of family. In fact, throughout the week, the leitmotif of family plays out as the family of community, writ large, grows in form, gathers in solidarity, and supports in absentia.

The growth in form to which I refer is reflected in a number of guests with us this week who are working toward the development of an African-American Denominational House at Chautauqua. Thanks to the advocacy of significant religious, business and public leaders from around the country, the conversation is widening on this subject and real progress is being made toward ensuring the Chautauqua experience is more broadly shared within African-American faith communities. Thank you to Helene Gayle, Matthew Watley, William Watley, Raphael Warnock, Cynthia Gayle, Calvin O. Butts, Otis Moss III and Otis Moss Jr., and many more who have tirelessly advocated for this expansion of the Chautauqua family.

Gathering in solidarity has many expressions but one example I would cite is Marjorie Sterritte’s family. Marj has been laboring in ill health for a while now and no one in the family thought she would be able to return to Chautauqua this year from her home in Florida. And yet, here she is. For those of you who know Marj a report of her determination is nothing new — she has never been indecisive nor lacked motivation. But her physical challenges are very real. Her family embraces her decision and understands the time here as a blessing in their collective lives. They share history and mark the changes in their lives against the consistency of Chautauqua.

I just got off the phone with Ken Fraden, a former trustee of the Institution and a longtime fixture within the community. He and his wife Zeta now live in the Rochester area with dedicated support for assisting in Zeta’s care. Due to Zeta’s condition they cannot return to Chautauqua. Ken is going through withdrawal. He finds particular pain in missing the opening of the CSO season. I am going through withdrawal in the absence of his frequent appearance in my office, bright eyes flashing above his devilish grin delivering the most wretched jokes you’ve ever heard. The word mensch might well have been created for Ken.

Finally, I reflect on the Zellers family and their reformation into Team Riley. Donna and Bob have three children, Heather, Jeffrey and Heidi. Heather has two children, Riley and Alex. Riley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Four months ago Donna and Bob moved in with Heather and Brad to help manage the family life and free Heather to the undiluted attention of Riley’s care. Heather’s sister Heidi and her fiancé, Joel, have delayed their planned Chautauqua wedding until Riley’s recovery is achieved. While the treatments remain rigorous and challenging, Riley is making genuine progress. I invite you to spend time studying the wonderful picture of Riley below. There is such joy and courage in her face. I hope what you see there is the awe some character of both the individual and the family completely devoted to her support.

There will be a picnic at the end of this week. The wonderful Chautauqua Community Band, led by Jason Weintraub, will strike up the music on Bestor Plaza. We will gather on blankets and scatter through the plaza. Friendships will be created and renewed. Children will ring the fountain and some of us will creak as we lower to or rise from the blankets. And all of us, whether there for the first time or returnees, will form community and know that we share the joys and the tears of life’s realities. And I believe you find throughout this collective the emerging strength of diversity, Marj’s steely resolve, Ken’s cultivated commitment and the Zellers’ abiding love.