The Ringling College Library Association (RCLA) was born from a small support group in 1975. A pioneering handful of community leaders started by donating $500 to help a struggling art school build its library. As Ringling College grew, so did our non-profit organization. It’s now expanded to nearly 2,000 members, and enjoyed many successes along the way. 2017 marked our greatest success story when the Alfred R. Goldstein Library opened its doors. It was a vision fulfilled. And the result of a long and loving campaign fueled by our members and TOWN HALL Lecture Series loyal patrons.
As an organization we operate with an annual overhead of just 10 percent and have made gifts and commitments to the college in excess of $11 million dollars. Our incredible legacy of support to the library has been an integral part of Ringling College’s success. Now, with the stunning new library, the college is attracting students in record numbers which has helped contribute to the College’s record enrollment. The support given to the Goldstein Library’s programming has also allowed the college to stay current with materials and academic resources the students need. As new and exciting majors are added to the curriculum, the Library’s collection also grows and is critical to accreditation; expanding student and faculty minds in these new areas.
In recent years, we have expanded our support of not only the library and its collections and programs, but also student scholarships. Scholarship funding is the College’s greatest need and we have added additional funding to scholarships in our new gift commitment to the College. We are honored to support student scholarships and giving the gift of education that these funds provide.
TOWN HALL, Sarasota’s Premier Lecture Series ®
Since inception in 1981, the TOWN HALL lecture series has featured the world’s leading spokespeople in world affairs, government, economics, business, social welfare, medicine and arts and entertainment. The TOWN HALL series is sold by subscription. “Bringing influencers from the world stage to our stage in Sarasota.”
Looking Back: RCLA 40th Anniversary By Debbi Benedict | 2000 TOWN HALL Chair and RCLA Board President 2004-2005
Who remembers Town Hall in 2000, our 20th year? I’ll give you a hint: Ed Smith Stadium and a circus tent. Raise your hand if you were there. Don’t be shy. I remember it well because I was the event chair.
The Van Wezel was under a major renovation that was supposed to be finished by January 1st. Much to my and the entire community’s dismay, it was not. The Van Wezel decided to erect a circus tent in their parking lot for the season, but it was not going to be completed before our first lecture, so we had our first speaker, documentarian Ken Burns, appear at Ed Smith Stadium, which was no easy feat.
First of all, we could not drive the city’s show mobile onto the field unless there was plywood across the entire distance for the vehicle to roll on so we wouldn’t destroy the grass. In one call only, my friend, Cerita Purmort, arranged for a construction company to donate the materials. Luckily Mr. Burns had completed a film about baseball, so at least the location seemed apropos. It was so exciting that the Herald-Tribune had Francie Jones, a past Town Hall chair and past president, on the front page wearing a sun visor made out of our program.
Not only was the Van Wezel under construction, but the Hyatt ballroom was also. We were able to have the first post-lecture luncheon in the hotel, but from then on, the Hyatt had a tent in their parking lot for events. We had to transport our subscribers from one tent to the other. Goodness, that was a year, but I had a terrific committee that never once let me down and was always on top of everything, as all Town Hall committees are.
A lot of things were different before and after that year.
Meade Ferguson shared with me that forty years ago, when Doris Stelzer was president, Doris brought the Town Hall idea to the board. She knew about the Town Hall program that the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio was successfully presenting and she thought it would work in Sarasota. Doris and Annamae Sandegren put together a committee of Nancy Weins, Mary Hurlbert, Jane Kirchner, Dot Scheurenbrand, Betty Pritchard, Ann Davidson, Lynn Nix, and Meade. Annamae spoke with Curt Haug of the Van Wezel and got the okay to hold it there and the rest is history. Doris was the first Town Hall chair and recently passed at 96 years of age.
The most important lesson they learned, that we still follow today, is to require the speaker to arrive the day before their scheduled lecture. One of their speakers that first year, wound up in a snow storm and was unable to get to Sarasota on time.
Of course, as things often go, not everyone follows the rules, as was the case with the first evening Town Hall back in the early 90s. Jane Kirschner was chair and her speaker was humor columnist, Lewis Grizzard. He drove down from Atlanta in tour bus because he was afraid of flying and took his sweet time getting to the Van Wezel. As Jane told me, “He arrived at the back door 20 minutes before curtain time. He checked the stage set-up, insisted on no lights in the audience, and we didn’t see him again until he walked on stage and had the audience roaring at his wry humor!”
You can imagine how complicated it is to do the ticketing process for Town Hall. A volunteer did this job for many, many years, often with just one or two helpers. In the early 2000s, RCLA was fortunate to hire Phyllis Anderson as the first employee. During ticketing time, if you went to Phyllis’ house, you would just see a mass of tickets all over the place, in an orderly fashion, of course! Now luckily, we have our team of Stephanie Grosskreutz and Michelle Frau to ably handle that chore.
What is now known as the Platinum Appreciation Event has had many incarnations over the years. As I remember, it was first known as the Patron Party and it was a cocktail reception at Michael’s On East. Then it became a dinner at Michael’s with the first speaker of the series attending the event the evening before. This was back when we only had morning lectures. After RCLA added the evening series, we had too many Platinum subscribers, so we moved it to the Ritz Carlton with a separate speaker for that event only. Now we have the Platinum Appreciation Event at our home, the Goldstein Library, right where we should be.
For the first 20 years or so, I don’t think most people really understood that the entire process of Town Hall was truly done with only volunteers. Once when I was chair, I had an agitated subscriber call complaining about something or other and wanting to speak to my “boss”. I believe I may have actually laughed out loud when he said that and I told him, “I wish I had one.” He demanded to know who that “white-haired man” was that he saw at the lectures. That was Dr. Arland Christ-Janer, who was the interim president of Ringling College and had no authority over the Library Association. I believe the caller may have hung up on me at that point.
Shortly after that phone call, Dr. Larry Thompson arrived at the college and things would never be the same, in a good way! When he started, he asked me if he could speak at every lecture so that our audience would get to know him. I said of course and that’s what he did. I don’t think he has ever stopped introducing himself to everyone. The passage of time shows he has made a significant impact on the college and on our community.
When I first became involved with Town Hall as a committee member, we were content to make around $70,000 every year. The year I chaired was the first year we went over $100,000 and I was delighted. Today, the profits have soared dramatically past that number and the Library Association has been able to radically impact the college with major, and I mean major, funds towards the new library and to scholarships, becoming one of the college’s largest donors.
I haven’t been actively involved in Town Hall for many years other than buying a ticket, but I still feel part of the RCLA family. I hope that with your attendance and commitment to the organization, you feel like family, too.