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In Focus

Nevada's Judith Winzeler

Making History with Chautauqua

By Jim Sloan | HUMANITIES, January/February 2008 | Volume 29, Number 6

When people ask Judith Winzeler, the executive director of Nevada Humanities, what her organization does, Winzeler usually asks if they’ve heard of the Great Basin Chautauqua.

Of course, they say. That’s where people dress up and pretend they’re Thomas Jefferson or some other famous person.

“Well, we’re the people who put that on every year,” Winzeler replies.

That usually does the trick—after seventeen years, most Nevadans have heard about Chautauqua or read about it or attended a Chautauqua event. More than one hundred historical figures have appeared in the program, which has moved from a makeshift stage under a tent its first year to an open-air amphitheater with fixed seats this past summer. The Great Basin Chautauqua is the largest program of its type in the country, and the ever-changing lineup has included such unexpected but memorable figures as Gandhi, Babe Ruth, and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

But as successful as it is, Chautauqua is just a part of what Winzeler has helped bring to Nevada since she became executive director in 1984.

There’s the Donner Party Chronicles, a book that has generated more than $200,000 for the state council since its publication in 1997; the Online Nevada Encyclopedia, a groundbreaking multimedia website exploring Nevada’s history, geography, and economy; and the Young Chautauqua program, which has become a model for other states and in 2001 received a Coming Up Taller Award from the President’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

To hear Winzeler tell it, so many of these things “fell into my lap.” But the success is too frequent, one suspects, for it all to be serendipitous. You suspect that Judith Winzeler, who is retiring at the end of the year, had a lot to do with that success.

“I’ve always been good at seeing an opportunity and grabbing it,” Winzeler finally admits.

Such was the case when she teamed up with Clay Jenkinson, who had helped found the Great Plains Chautauqua before being lured to northern Nevada to help launch Great Basin Chautauqua, now called the Nevada Humanities Chautauqua, in 1992. Jenkinson, in addition to playing a range of historic figures, became the creative director of an event that Winzeler says “helps people look at contemporary society through the lens of history.” No one, Winzeler says, is better at engaging an audience than Jenkinson, who left the program this year.

“Part of the charm and success of Chautauqua is the competitiveness and the sense of ill ease Clay can create on the part of the other scholars,” Winzeler says. “They really have to know their stuff.”

Winzeler, too, has faced unexpected challenges. About 90 percent of Nevada’s population is concentrated in two urban areas—Reno, Sparks, and Carson City in the north and Las Vegas far to the south. The rest of the population is spread among far-flung communities. Bringing cultural activities to all corners of the Great Basin is no easy feat, but Winzeler has seen to it with traveling exhibits and her “Humanities on the Road” program, which brings forty-five to fifty speakers and Chautauqua characters to these areas each year.

Nevada’s vast expanses are what convinced Winzeler to proceed with the Online Nevada Encyclopedia (ONE). She saw the project as a way for Nevadans to visit and learn about distant corners of the state without having to endure a grueling drive across the desert. Initially, she was concerned there weren’t enough experts in the state to provide the encyclopedic-level of writing—scholarship in many areas of Nevada history is very thin—but she and her staff stuck with the project. Eventually, they raised more than $1 million for ONE, which went live in February 2007.

One of the unexpected resources she found was a University of Nevada, Reno, digital journalist named Howard Goldbaum, who created a series of virtual reality images for the website. Goldbaum has gained access to historical sites, such as the Chollar Mine in Virginia City and the sacred Toquima Caves of the Yomba tribe, to photograph places the public is no longer allowed to visit.

Before Winzeler retires at the end of this year, she’s launching a fundraising program that will help make the Nevada Humanities’ budget more sustainable and less reliant on one-time grants.

People will continue to read the many books published by Nevada Humanities, including Sagebrush Urbanities II, which she wrote in 2007, and attend book festivals created by the council, and log on to the online encyclopedia.

And they’ll continue to turn out for the Great Basin Chautauqua. One of those spectators will probably be Winzeler herself.

“There is something different about it,” Winzeler says. “When you’re sitting outside on a summer evening and the Nevada sky turns purple and the geese fly overhead, it’s . . .”

Winzeler’s voice drifts off for a moment while she pictures the scene in her head. She’s trying to think of the right words.
“You feel like you’re part of something important,” she says finally. “Something special.”

Jim Sloan is a freelance writer in Reno, Nevada.

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