Newest ‘Giants of Chautauqua’ to be unveiled today

Since 2006, five Chautauqua Giants have been named at the end of each season.

Their reveal, which will commence at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, is part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series celebration. Chautauqua archivist and historian Jon Schmitz coordinates the event, selecting a season’s giants from a pool of community suggestions.

Among the giants celebrated in previous years are Arthur Bestor, Sam Hazlett and Ida Tarbell; Ross Mackenzie, Alfreda Irwin, and William Rainey Harper; Elizabeth Lenna, Maritza Morgan and Winnie Llewellyn.

To be honored as a giant is, indeed, an honor, but the same can be said for people asked to honor a giant.

Schmitz contacts people who “get it,” meaning people who have been around the grounds and have played some role in its programming and upkeep themselves.

In this way, Deborah Sunya Moore, associate director of programming, will celebrate Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming at Chautauqua, who is retiring this fall.

With a background in classical music, opera, theater and dance, Merkley came to Chautauqua Institution from the New World Symphony in Miami, where he was a founding member and general manager. Before that, he served as manager of the opera department of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Merkley will celebrate another giant, Jay Lesenger, the general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera Company, who will step down from that position at the end of this year.

Lesenger has led the Institution’s resident opera company, the nation’s oldest continuously producing summer company — and fourth-oldest American opera company overall — since October 1994.

A nationally recognized teacher of acting for singers, Lesenger is responsible for an expansion of company’s renowned Young Artist program. Singers have graduated from his tutelage to perform from some of the nation’s most reputable stages, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera.

Ellen Clark will honor her father, Ralph McCallister, former director of programs and education at Chautauqua Institution. McCallister came to Chautauqua in 1944 during a period of realignment, and various musical departments were given greater autonomy under his watch.

In particular, the directorships of the opera and symphony were permanently divorced.

His presence at Chautauqua, which he held until 1961, helped to fill a gap left by the sudden deaths of Music Director Albert Stoessel in 1943 and longtime president Arthur Bestor in 1944.

Charlie Heinz, Chautauqua’s former vice president for community planning and design, will present the giant Doug Conroe, the Institution’s former director of operations. Conroe studied public administration at Kent State University and took a job as executive director of the Chautauqua Lake Association in 1980. He was hired by the Institution as assistant to the vice president of operations in 1984; he worked in the operations department for 30 years, retiring in 2014.

Among his principle loves is Chautauqua Lake. In a 2014 Daily interview with John Ford, Conroe said his time with the CLA piqued his interest in lake conservation, and the CLA position opened some doors for membership in county committees. He’s currently chair of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an interstate compact of eight states and the federal government.

Conroe will in turn honor another giant, Ryan Kiblin, former supervisor of grounds, gardens and landscaping at Chautauqua, who passed away July 13, 2014.

In describing Kiblin’s memorial service for the Dunkirk Observer, Margot Russell wrote: “She loved butterflies, tie dye and the color purple. She savored trips to the botanical gardens in Buffalo, loved animals of all kinds, and held a fascination for anything and everything green.” Her work at Chautauqua had only just begun, but that which she started will last for generations.