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In 1942, Eau Claire, like so many communities across the country, had a civic or social organization that gathered for dinner and engaged after-dinner speakers to give them travel and current events — a "knife and fork club", as they were called. W.R. Davies, second president of the Eau Claire State Teachers College, believed that a partnership between the community and the college would make the program better, and would open up the lectures to the general public.
The Forum at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire began, then, in 1942. The program came to be entirely funded by student dollars.
The program format has not changed over the years. The Forum committee selects an average of five speakers a year. Each speaker lectures for an hour, and takes questions from the audience for a half-hour. Members of the audience have an opportunity to meet the speaker at an informal reception. Forum presenters often do much more than their evening lecture during their visit to Eau Claire.
The Forum has hosted many journalists, religious scholars, writers, politicians and civil rights figures. Many programs were built around the formation of the UN; W.R. Davies was president of the Wisconsin United Nations Association. Many Forum events center on nuclear policy or international relations at particularly dicey times in the world.
Many were household names in their time, but are no longer. There are people whose names were never well known, but what they did is remembered — such as Li Lu, one of the students who led nearly half a million people in the nonviolent pro-democracy demonstration at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Some whose names leap off the page now were less known when they visited Eau Claire.
¶ Martin Luther King addressed a Forum audience in March 1962 — more than a year before he delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. He called upon President Kennedy to issue a second emancipation proclamation 100 years after the first. “The first proclamation freed us from slavery; the second will free us from segregation, which is nothing more than slavery,” King said. Describing how Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent direct action were being used to gain civil rights, he told the audience, “We will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will not only win our just rights but win you, too.”
¶ Yitzhak Rabin concluded his 27-year military career as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. When he addressed The Forum in April 1969 he was ambassador to the United States. Later, while in his second term as Prime Minister of Israel, he received the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his negotiations with the Palestinians. Rabin became a martyr to peace in the Middle East when he was assassinated the following year.
¶ Dian Fossey had spent 13 years with the mountain gorilla in Rwanda prior to her March 1981 presentation on The Forum. It was one of a few lecture opportunities she accepted while in the U.S. for 18 months, teaching at Cornell University and working on her book, Gorillas in the Mist. Five years later she was murdered at her Karisoke camp, where she fought poachers and governments alike to preserve "her" gorillas and their habitat. Fossey's book was adapted for a feature film nominated for five Academy Awards. The videotape of her Forum lecture was a perennial favorite on campus and community television.
The Forum has presented a powerful and inspiring roster since 1942. Some of its programs can be historic opportunities, and all of them are memorable experiences.