Skip to main content

Forum Eyes Second Quarter Century

Eau Claire Leader | October 6, 1967
By Tom Lawin, Hi-Lites Editor

The appearance at the state university here Monday night of the great humanitarian and author of more than 70 books, Mrs. Pearl Buck, will mark more than the opening of the 1967–68 Forum series. It marks the beginning of the second quarter century of the Forum series, a series whose emphasis has taken on new dimensions through the years, due mainly to television.

It was in 1942, at the height of WW II, when Germany launched its first V-2 rocket and the year the movie Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon won accolades, that a Michigan industrialist strode to the podium in the rather dank auditorium of the only building on the campus of what then was known as Eau Claire State Teachers College.

A safe wager would be that fewer than a half-dozen local and area persons living today could recall with little hesitation the name of the fellow who 25 years ago was a much sought after after-dinner speaker and lecturer before men's groups and conventions.

The fellow was one William Hale, whereabouts unknown today, who gave a lighthearted talk which formally launched the series then known as the Chippewa Valley Forum — a series that one of the organizers of the forum admitted this week probably "was designed only to be a temporary arrangement."

The Chippewa Valley Forum, one of several legacies left by the late W.R. Davies, second president of the university here, was the first attempt since the bygone days of the old Opera House here to bring topflight notables to Eau Claire — experts in the fields of politics, journalism, literature and economics.

Today it is an integral part of the university program, for not only are the speakers paid (about $7,500 for the five this year) by the university and not only are all performances held in the college fieldhouse, but the speakers now are booked by Johannes Dahle, director of university programs.

Membership this year also is conducted in a different manner. There will be no individual performance tickets sold; only season membership tickets are being sold in a spirited telephone campaign. Also, all seats this year will be reserved; patrons will know in advance where they will sit in the fieldhouse, where all lectures will be heard. Performance time is 8:15 p.m.

This year's Forum lineup includes Mrs. Buck on Monday night; Bishop James Pike on November 1; James Farmer of C.O.R.E. on February 19; Dr. Clark Kerr on March 27; and Dr. Huston Smith on April 22.

Several local and area residents still sit as a committee to select the five or six speakers who will appear the following year, but it isn’t like the old days, and perhaps that is a good thing.

But one thing is indisputable: the five dollar ticket that provides entrance to the entire series of five speakers in 1967 is the same price Forum-goers paid back in 1942 to hear five persons, at least four of whom may as well be recorded nowadays as non-entities, inform local audiences on the goings on in the Far East, Latin America and Russia.

"This has to be the best bargain around these parts today," says Miss Hilda Belle Oxby, one of less than a dozen persons who took up the challenge of President Davies when he suggested the plan that eventually became the Chippewa Valley Forum. Miss Oxby herself is somewhat of an institution: she taught German and several other courses at the university here from 1916, when it was established, until 1953. She holds a professor-emeritus rank.

That original handful of local and area residents which met with President Davies included former Chippewa County Circuit Judge Clarence Rinehard; Chippewa Falls attorney Henry Christofferson; Chippewa Falls banker Arch Fletcher; Eau Claire attorney Francis Wilcox; Miss Oxby; Mrs. Ed Larkin, wife of an Eau Claire attorney; Glenn Rork, then district manager of NSP; former city school principal, the late Sam Davey; and others some of the above can’t remember any more.

Since that day 25 years ago, more than 125 "experts" in their fields — some recalled vividly, some long forgotten — have paraded before local audiences. Some returned for encores up to 10 years later and one was recalled twice to Eau Claire.

The headliners have included such literary giants as Louis Bromfield, Sinclair Lewis, John Mason Brown, Norman Cousins and Will Durant; famed newspapermen and newscasters such as Sander Vanocur, Drew Pearson, Carl Rowan. Hanson Baldwin; and other notables in the sciences and letters, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Dr. Charles Malik and Harry Golden.

There was only one program on which two persons appeared simultaneously. In 1943 the famous author Sinclair Lewis appeared with one Lewis Browne “probably because Mr. Lewis was so shy he couldn’t appear in front of people alone,” Miss Oxby stated.

It was radio and magazines and newspapers that caused the Chippewa Valley Forum to be born and it is television that has caused it to shift gears and travel a somewhat different path.

Eau Claire in 1942 was a city much different in many physical respects than it now is. About the only similarities are that its sons then, as now, were making the supreme sacrifice in some distant land across the seas and much of the city’s industry, as now, was devoted to the war effort.

Most other aspects of life in Eau Claire in 1942 were vastly different from what they now are. For example, the city was less than three-fourths the size it now is — 30,745 by 1940 census figures. Television still was seven or eight years distant and the city had but one radio station — WEAU, now WEAQ. Local residents read Time, Life, Look and the defunct Liberty and Collier’s magazines and it was in these journals and the local newspaper and on the sole radio station that noted persons of the day expressed their views.

Some of the early Forum speakers were brought here because local persons wanted to see them in person after either having heard their voices via radio or seen their names in print.

However, most of the speakers who were brought to Eau Claire by local persons, according to Mrs. Ed Larkin, were those who were tops then in their fields and most of the people in Eau Claire "didn’t even recognize the names."

She recalled "we didn’t rely, then, on the big names, but because we had upwards of 500 members (at $5 a member) we could afford to hire good speakers." Mrs. Larkin said that Hale, the first of all Forum speakers, cost the group $100 for expenses. Others ranged upwards of $400 or $500; this figure included historian Max Lerner and others.

Members of the city's civic clubs, Mrs. Larkin and Miss Oxby recall, rallied behind President Davies in his bid to inaugurate the Forum lecture series.

"It was Mr. Davies’ way of making the community aware of the college, of bringing it to the four corners, if you please," Mrs. Larkin mused.

Mrs. Larkin also recalls how she contacted many of the speakers personally by letter and had their appearances here confirmed by the lecturers in the same manner. "There simply were too few booking agencies then," she said.

Harry Overstreet, in the early 1940s a rather unknown entity, was booked "because I had heard about him from a friend in Cleveland," Mrs. Larkin stated. Overstreet in the 1950s became popular when he teamed with his wife Bonaro and wrote such bestsellers as What We Must Know About Communism and other works.

The big issues of the day were related to the war. Gas rationing was on and most persons with A cards were city bound. The Forum was one of few entertainment outlets in 1942 and the auditorium was filled at most lectures.

In fact, Miss Oxby recalls that during Forum nights during the war, extra police officers were hired to patrol the parking areas "so tires wouldn’t be stolen off the cars."

It's a different story now, though. With television we all know what the big names in the fields of journalism, economics, politics, history, literature and the stage look like.

Other issues — mainly in the social vein — now are upper-most in the minds of Eau Claire residents, notwithstanding the Vietnam war. The racial problem, the threat of inflation, the influence of brotherhood, of helping others, and the restive atmosphere on many U.S. college campuses are the big issues of 1967, the beginning of the second quarter century of The Forum series.

And these issues are reflected in the types of speakers now headlining The Forum series, particularly this year. For example, James Farmer, founder of C.OR.E. — Congress of Racial Equality; humanitarian Mrs. Pearl Buck, who puts all monies earned on a packed lecture tour toward helping illegitimate children, especially in the orient, sired by American servicemen: ultra-liberal Episcopalian Bishop James Pike; and Dr. Clark Kerr, involved in and swallowed up in the notorious "free speech" movement at the University of California will appear here this year. All are involved in one or more of the great social issues of the day — some of which still were simmering and some of which weren’t even conceived yet back in 1942.

This is the direction of The Forum — 1967–68 style. And it is one of the things that has characterized The Forum in its 25-year history; it presents speakers who associate themselves with the big events or trends of the day.

The Forum has come to be a fixture in the community and it has weathered some lean years when internal conflicts arose. But it was pulled up again by willing workers and in 1953–54 it formally was phased into the university program, with the name Chippewa Valley Forum continued for one year.

Johannes Dahle, who now assumes the chore of helping the committee of three from the community, two faculty and two student body representatives select speakers, said of The Forum, “… it has the tradition of being one of the longest continuing programs of its kind in the United States  … The Forum has greatly enriched the life of the community.”