Every week’s lecture series has a theme at Chautauqua Institution, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the concept of themed weeks only came to be when the Institution’s 14th president, who is receiving the President’s Medal tonight, conceived the idea.
Bob Hesse served as president of Chautauqua Institution from 1977 to 1983. The board of trustees brought him on as an agent of change to spur Chautauqua from a period of malaise. He is credited today by many former colleagues as being a catalyst to Chautauqua’s more recent success. Current president Tom Becker will present Hesse with the medal tonight prior to the dance recital at 8:15 p.m. to thank him for his work.
“My charge was to restore the facilities and to restore the programs,” Hesse said. “That’s what I did.”
Hired at the same time as Hesse, Charlie Heinz served Chautauqua as vice president for planning and community design. Heinz said Chautauqua’s facilities were not receiving the year-round care they needed, and it was Hesse who created a culture of constant care and impeccable aesthetics on the grounds.
“He knew what needed to be done and he was going to get it done,” Heinz said. “He had a mission to modernize Chautauqua and to bring it into a new era.”
Looking over Bestor Plaza, Heinz said, “If there hadn’t been a Bob Hesse, we wouldn’t be looking at what we’ve got out here now.”
It wasn’t just infrastructure that Hesse pushed to improve. According to Geof Follansbee, CEO of the Chautauqua Foundation, Hesse’s background in music led him to strengthening the programming at Chautauqua — especially in the music department.
“I remember Bob as a guy who came in here, looked around and recognized that Chautauqua really needed to invest in its artistic programming and to try to raise the quality of that whole area of Chautauqua’s program,” said Follansbee, who served as a member of the board of trustees during the Hesse administration.
Something of a renaissance man, Hesse’s talents span across different spheres. He has an accomplished career in music both as a violinist with several different groups and as executive director of the Joffrey Ballet. He is also the founder and current chairman of the Indianapolis City Ballet.
Becker, said he decided to give Hesse the award not just for his lasting contributions for Chautauqua, but for a life spent dedicated to improvement of the world and the arts.
“The longer I’m here, the more sensitive I am to how difficult this job is, and I appreciate the efforts of the other 16 people who have held this position,” Becker said. “I’m grateful for his contributions. “
Speaking of his general presence, different colleagues of Hesse remember different sides of his personality.
“He was very easy to get along with,” said Dick Miller, a board member during Hesse’s tenure. “He had a good sense of humor, he had the right personality to meet people well. He wasn’t a standoffish kind of person.”
Others remembered a more intense, driven leader.
“He’s vigorous,” Becker said. “He has the energy of an impresario.”
“He was intense,” he said. “He was driven. He saw the obligation, responsibility and opportunity, and he wasn’t going to let it go. He was going to work as hard as he could to accomplish what he thought needed to happen to move this institution forward.”
Even in his own words, Hesse acknowledged the cutthroat nature of the kinds of work he had to do to get Chautauqua back on track.
“I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said.
As the Institution continues to grow in prominence, reputation and quality, many Chautauquans, current and former, still hold a great deal of reverence for the work that Hesse provided.
“Chautauqua needed someone, like a bad kid, to pick Chautauqua up by the scruff of the neck and shake it,” Heinz said. “And that’s what Bob Hesse did.”
To Hesse, in a statement of modesty and humility, the reward should not be his alone as the turnaround was a team effort.
“You never do anything alone,” he said. “There are always instrumental people who spend a lot of their energy, time and money to help. It’s always a team effort.”